Ed. note: This remembrance is the first in a series to highlight noteworthy Ryder Cup matches, during the week the biennial event was to be played at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin.
Excuse me for asking and I hope you won’t mind my interrupting, but I have a question that concerns five of Europe’s best golfers – Severiano Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam. Each was born in a different European country, each would win at least one of golf’s major championships, most became world No 1 and all five contributed hugely to Europe’s success in the Ryder Cup.
Here’s the money fact though: They all were born within 11 months of one another and reached the full flowering of their talents at much the same time. What this meant was that for most Ryder Cups from 1983 to 1997 Europe had up to five world-class golfers in their team, who in all won 16 major championships, even if the other members of the team were not so accomplished.
How lucky was that for European golf? What was in the milk on that continent in the 11 months between April 1957 and March 1958? Perhaps the explanation is that there is no explanation.
In the mid-’70s, the Spaniard Ballesteros burst on the scene with the noise of china plates crashing on a concrete floor. Ballesteros would go on to win the 1979, ’84 and ’88 Opens as well as the Masters of 1980 and ’83. In July 1987, England’s Faldo parred all 18 holes in his last round to win the Open, his first major championship, and later would win two more Claret Jugs and three green jackets. Germany’s Langer won the Masters in 1985 and ’93. In 1985, Lyle, a Scot, became the first person born in the United Kingdom to win the Open since Tony Jacklin in 1969. Three years later Lyle added the Masters. Among Woosnam’s strengths was his length – “wee Woosie is very short on the tee and very long off it,” someone once wrote. His all-round excellence was rewarded in April 1991 when he topped the world rankings, the first man who had not won a major championship to do that. Six days later he remedied that at the Masters, his green jacket being handed to him by Faldo, the 1989-’90 champion.
It had been coming. Rather like clouds rolling from the west warning of incoming rain, so the individual success of these five contributed hugely to ending the days of Europe being the whipping boys of the United States in the Ryder Cup.
Never was this truer than on some sun-filled days at Muirfield Village in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, in September 1987 when they starred in their continent’s first victory in the US in the biennial competition dating back to 1927.
The two teams were accommodated in villas lining the fairways at Muirfield Village. Again and again at team meetings in the villa allocated to Tony Jacklin, the Europe captain, Ballesteros would proclaim, “We can beat them; we will beat them.” Leading the team in spirit if not in fact, Ballesteros was in his element and in the opening morning’s foursomes played some of the finest golf he had ever played.
He was partnered by José María Olazábal, his young countryman making his Ryder Cup debut. This was the birth of a remarkable pairing that would go on to set a points’ record in this event. The two were paired together in foursomes and four-balls in 1987, ’89, ’91 and ’93 for 15 matches. They won 11, lost two and halved two. Ballesteros’ competitiveness was always at its most evident in this transatlantic event and in 1987 while shepherding his young countryman through his first Ryder Cup, Ballesteros rediscovered some of the form that had been missing from his game.
On Friday, after the early morning fog had lifted, it soon became clear it was going to be Europe’s day. Eight points were at stake from the four morning foursomes and the four afternoon four-balls and the US won only the first two – Curtis Strange and Tom Kite defeating Sam Torrance and Howard Clark, 4 and 2, and Hal Sutton and Dan Pohl beating Ken Brown and Bernhard Langer, 2 and 1. This was historic. The US had never before lost six matches in a row. It is doubtful they had lost every match of one session, as they did in the Friday afternoon four-balls. Only one of the four matches reached the last green, Lyle and Langer beating Andy Bean and Mark Calcavecchia at the 18th.
By lunchtime on Saturday, after the morning foursomes, Europe had moved even further ahead. The only winners from the home side were the same pairing as had won the previous day – Strange and Kite by 3 and 1. Sutton and Larry Mize halved with Faldo and Woosnam. Europe’s lead of 8½-3½ was more of a US scoreline in this biennial event than a European one.
That afternoon’s play was a feast of good golf, causing American captain Jack Nicklaus to remark he had never seen golf like it. The session was halved, two victories each. In the day’s last four-ball match between Lyle and Langer against Lanny Wadkins and Larry Nelson, the Europeans were 3 up with three to play only for Wadkins to hole good putts to win the 16th and 17th.
In bygone days these blows might have forced capitulation by the Europeans but on the 18th Langer’s second soared through the gathering gloom and finished a hand’s width from the hole. Europe led, 10½-5½, an astonishing scoreline from Europe’s point of view, and needed four points from the next day’s singles to win on US soil for the first time and take home the golden trophy they had brought with them on the Concorde five days earlier.
They did it, slowly inching closer to the magic total and helped by Eamonn Darcy’s brilliant putt on the 18th to defeat Ben Crenshaw, who in a fit of temper broke his putter early on and used a wood more often than not on the greens.
After realising that Darcy’s victory had set up Ballesteros four matches behind to deliver the winning point, Ken Schofield, then the chief executive of the European Tour, and I ended our conversation by the 18th green and sprinted down the fairway in time to see Ballesteros defeat Strange on the 17th green. In two successive TV interviews moments later, Jacklin burst into tears. Schofield turned to me and congratulated me as if I had had something to do with it – and then we both cried. If it now seems an odd way to celebrate an event that had put a smile on the face of European golf, all I can say is that if you had been there you might have done the same thing.
With that the celebrations began in the spectators’ village. Europe’s army of travelling supporters started singing Cockles and Mussels and hoisting first Darcy, then Faldo, then Woosnam onto rickety trestle tables. Faldo and Woosie took their shirts off – and nothing else, mercifully. “I’m not much of a one for public speaking,” Woosie said, beer in one hand. “But this Tony Jacklin should be made a lord.”
The greatest applause was for Ballesteros. As he was showered with scorecards, gloves and programmes, he was graced by the almost harmonious notes of “There’s Only One Severiano.” I recorded at the time that “not since he won the 1984 Open at St Andrews had he looked so happy and carefree in the presence of so many people.”
Here’s the thing about this match. I have seen 44 Opens, 39 Masters and almost as many PGAs. I have reported from 20 Ryder Cups and watched one other on television, and of these Medinah in 2012 was astonishing, arguably the best ever.
But nothing quite compares with being there, watching and having the privilege of writing about the first away victory by Europe in what has become one of the most exciting team events in all sport.
I will forget my children’s birthdays, to licence my car and pay my television tax, but I will never, ever, forget the week from 21 to 27 September 1987 at Jack Nicklaus’ home course. And in a place called Dublin, too.
Top photo: The European team with the Ryder Cup at Heathrow Airport on its return to England: (front, from left) Severiano Ballesteros and captain Tony Jacklin; (middle) Eamonn Darcy, Howard Clark, José María Olazábal (hidden), Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo; (back) José Rivero, Gordon Brand Jr., Sam Torrance and Ian Woosnam; not in picture, Sandy Lyle and Ken Brown (S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)
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