A Brief History Of The Ryder Cup

By The Way - Weekly Columns


A Brief History of the Ryder Cup By Alan Wilson It’s 2018. It’s a year divisible by 2. Yes, my mathematically inclined friends, it’s an even year. So that means either World Cup or Euros in the football world and a Ryder Cup in the golfing world. Being a fan of both sports, I love even numbered years !

For the past 50 years the World Cup and Euros have been a source of bitter disappointment and unfulfilled potential for the home nations – either not qualifying at all or failing miserably on arrival – with one or two plucky exceptions. The Ryder Cup, on the other hand, has been one of the few occasions in recent times when a home win was not only possible, but probable. The question is, can this continue? We’ll come back to this topic in later columns and try and answer that question when things start hotting up and the places are being contested. Today we are going to whet your appetite for the contest ahead by having a brief look at the history of the Ryder Cup.

The Ryder Cup began its life in 1927 as a competition between the USA and GB. GB, in case you’re not aware, is Scotland, England and Wales (not necessarily, although preferably, in that order). In the inaugural match the USA ran out easy winners 9.5 to 2.5, which was to set a pattern for the foreseeable future. This was a time when international travel involved lengthy sea journeys, or extremely dodgy “Raiders of the Lost Ark” type air travel so it was uncommon for foreign players to compete in national opens. And expensive. This was also aeons before the big money entered the game of golf, so when a team of American pros scrabbled together the money to come across to the UK in the 1920’s and compete in The Open a semi-formal side-bet competition with local pros was set up. This was half-heartedly attempted again in subsequent years until Samuel Ryder put up the money for a trophy and the competition rules were formalised in 1927, the matches to be played biennially in alternate countries. GB won the trophy in 1929, but from this point on, the USA won every one apart from 1933.

Fast-forwarding to the post-war years, the competition had gained some credibility. With the new breed of American golfers (Hogan, Nelson and so on) pretty much winning everything in the professional game it was no surprise that the USA dominated the Ryder Cup too. It took until 1957 before a GB team captained by Dai Rees won the trophy back. None other than a young Peter Allis was a member of that famous team, recipients of an early SPOTY team of the year award.

At this stage, the matches were played over 36 holes of foursomes/singles. In 1961, in the first of many format changes, this changed to 2 sets of 18 holes of foursomes and 2 sets of fourballs. This cunning plan did not prevent the USA from continuing their dominance all the way through the 1960’s. This is where the competition first started to be a real thing from my point of view, as I was old enough to appreciate it and had access to a TV to watch it. For most men, maybe women too, the decision on which sporting person/team to follow is largely determined by what your dad said/did and, further down the pecking order, peer pressure. My dad was and is a huge Jack Nicklaus fan, which gave young Al a bit of a dilemma. Supporting Jack in the majors was easy, but what about the Ryder Cup? Well, that turned out to be easy too. In particular the contest of 1969 summarised the apparently conflicting concepts of fair play, sportsmanship camaraderie and determination to win. This allowed me to simultaneously hold two opposing views, i.e. support Jack and the GB team. You young ‘uns may think of Tony Jacklin as that hopelessly out of shape guy who could not dance for toffee and got his Strictly Come Dancing marching orders early doors a few years back. In 1969 he was both the epitome of cool and the most likely Brit to wrestle a major from the hands of the yanks or springboks. The big 3 of Arnie, Jack and Gary pretty much had things sewn up between them but Jacklin, arguably the GB #1, was in there competing with them at the top table. That was the scene as the 1969 Ryder Cup drew to a close, the final pairing being Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin. The competition was as evenly balanced as could be with everything depending on the result of this final match.

In an iconic moment that truly captured what golf was all about, the final match went all the way to the final green where Nicklaus holed a tricky 5 footer after racing his first past. The fate of the match and the competition then rested on Jacklin’s final putt – miss and the tournament was the USA’s, hole it and the match was halved and the competition halved. To his credit, Nicklaus conceded the putt, insisting that Jacklin would not have missed, but not testing his nerves. The match ended with a classic “arms around the shoulder” moment from Jack, something we’d see a lot of as he regularly consoled beaten opponents ! Sadly, later tournaments would not be able to continue this fine tradition of sportsmanship.

The 1970’s continued pretty much where the 1960’s left off. In my experience, that is how time usually works but you get my point. The USA continued to dominate the event, despite further changes to the tournament and the drafting in of Irish players (this had been happening behind the scenes for a while) to create the GB and Ireland team. In total desperation by this point and with some quality European players emerging, principally the young Seve Ballesteros, the powers that be introduced Europe to GB and Ireland in the hope of giving the yanks some serious competition. The format was also changed to the one we know and love – 8 x foursomes, 8 x fourballs and 12 singles giving a total of 28 points to play for. Guess what? Made not a blind bit of difference – the USA still running out winners and was not until well into the 1980’s (1985 to be precise) that GB & Europe could record their first win as a combined team. The Belfry, near Sutton Coldfield and just up the road from me, was the scene of that famous victory, Sam Torrance holing the crucial winning putt.

Europe consolidated their position by winning the next one in 1987 at Jack’s Muirfield Village. This proved to be a turning point in Europe’s fortunes. The next 30 years would see a much more even contest.

By the time 1991 came around, the sportsmanship of Nicklaus and Jacklin seemed to be a thing of the past. In what came to be known as the “War on the Shore”, Kiawah Island was the scene of another American win, and possibly the beginning of the famous Azinger-Ballesteros rift. Which actually sounds like something you’d find under the Pacific Ocean, or perhaps deep within the heart of a distant nebula. It was the turning point which marked the seriousness with which this competition was now being played out. The “controversy” in question centred around a changed ball, among other things. In 1989, under the rules, Seve attempted to change a scuffed ball mid round but Azinger queried the extent of the damage, got a referee involved and Ballesteros was forced to play on with the damaged ball. By 1991, no quarter was given, and the Azinger-Ballesteros matches were full of little niggles and digs – a wrongly dropped ball here, an illegal change there. The most controversial thing was the Americans swapping balls for one of different compression on the 7th tee, in clear violation of one of the rules. You can read some of the players reflections on events here – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/golf/2016/10/01/ryder-cup-former-players-remember-bitter-clashes-at-1991-war-on/ Europe’s Bernhard Langer missed a 6 footer for par on the last hole, which would have won him his match and tied the competition. Instead the USA won by a single point.

The next notable competition was another one notorious for all the wrong reasons. In 1999, in Brookline, the USA took to the course in, quite possibly, the worst outfits in the history of man. Considering we are talking about professional golfers, that is really saying something. They were licking their wounds after suffering two defeats in a row. The controversy this time started before a ball was struck, with the USA showing us their true qualities by claiming they had the “best 12 players in the world” and that the European players would (just about) be OK as caddies for their team. Classy. Things got worse when, in an outburst that can only be attributed to the wearing of those shocking shirts, the USA team invaded the 17th green WHILE OLAZABAL STILL HAD A PUTT TO KEEP THE MATCH ALIVE. Then there was the general taunting of Monty by the fans – looking back, things have only got worse in that respect with the “get in the hole” mob becoming more and more vociferous.