For 39 years I have spent one week each April at The Masters so arithmetic indicates that I have devoted almost exactly nine months of my life to being in that speck of a place in Georgia. Using the same arithmetical process, if I have covered 20 Ryder Cups, the first in 1973, the next in 1981 and every one since, it follows that I have spent 20 weeks during the past 40 years at venues such as The Country Club, Brookline, in the U.S., Walton Heath, Surrey, England, Kiawah Island, South Carolina, Muirfield, Gullane, Scotland, Oak Hill, Rochester, New York, The Belfry, Birmingham, England, Valhalla, Louisville, Kentucky, and Valderrama, Costa del Sol, Spain. And I have been paid to do so, what’s more. Not a bad gig, eh?
The Friday, Saturday and Sunday of a Ryder Cup are in my opinion the best three days in golf, a biennial battle against our oldest allies. Shorter than the Masters or the Open, two of my favourites, a Ryder Cup is an intensive 72-hour examination that will test a player’s mental resolve as much as their physical skill.
It is watching men perform while a little way, sometimes a long way, outside their comfort zones that makes the match so attractive. You know they can play golf but can they demonstrate the necessary character when needed? Can they hide their weaknesses if they have to? Can they summon their strengths when called upon? Making it more difficult is that such an examination takes place in the unusual environment of a team match-play event when almost all their golf is played for themselves and at stroke play. Suddenly they are playing not for their club, their county or state or country but their continent. How will they react? Seeing all this happen over three days is like electric shock therapy, one jolt after another after another. The Ryder Cup is so thrilling because it is so different. It is exciting and inexplicable, unexpected and incomprehensible, predictable and unfathomable, nerve-wracking and exhilarating, compelling, uplifting and inspiring.
It is often said that the Europeans regard playing in a Ryder Cup as a greater prize than anything they achieve on their own. Indeed recently, Shane Lowry, the 2019 Open champion, said just that – to be on the 12-man team representing Europe was the biggest honour of his life. It is questionable whether the same applies to every American who has ever played in the event. Recently Brooks Koepka was asked if it was strange being on a team. “It’s different,” he replied…
“It’s a bit odd if I’m honest. We’re just so individualized and everybody has their routine and a different way of doing things and now it’s like, OK we have to have a meeting at this time or go do that. It’s the opposite of what happens during a major week.”
To me, the Ryder Cup is:
• Colin Montgomerie playing 82 holes during the course of five matches in the 2002 Ryder Cup and never once being behind.
• Ian Woosnam playing eight singles in his Ryder Cup career and not winning one, six losses and two halves.
• Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau playing a combined nine matches in Paris in 2018 and not winning one.
• Philip Price, the 115th ranked player in the world, beating Phil Mickelson, ranked second, in their singles at the 2002 Ryder Cup.
• Watching Jack Nicklaus kiss the ground at Palm Beach Gardens after the US had squeaked home by one point in 1983. Less than one month earlier, Australia had won the America’s Cup sailing competition, inflicting defeat on a US boat for the first time in 132 years. Perhaps Nicklaus was moved to kiss the ground because he was so relieved that a second defeat of considerable magnitude was not about to be inflicted on an American team captained by him so soon after the first.
• Larry Nelson winning all five matches for the US in 1979 and all of the four he played in 1981. The US team in 1981 comprised 11 men who had won or would win, a major championship. The exception? Bruce Lietzke.
“Make it count.” – Pádraig Harrington
• Webb Simpson driving from the first tee at Gleneagles in 2014 and hitting his ball higher in the air than the distance it went forward.
• Hearing how Pádraig Harrington told his team at Whistling Straits just how select the Ryder Cup is. “Make it count,” he said to them as he outlined that 570 people have gone into space, 445 have won soccer’s World Cup, 5,780 have climbed Mount Everest and 225 have won men’s major championships. Only 164 men have played for Great Britain and Ireland and now Europe in the Ryder Cup. “Make it count,” he repeated.
My affection for the Ryder Cup began standing on the touchline of a school rugby match listening via an earpiece to a radio broadcast of the 1961 match at Royal Lytham & St Annes, and in particular to Peter Alliss’s singles match against W Collins. Watching 1st XV matches was compulsory in those days. When I was at school our motto was “aut vincere aut mori” which means “either to conquer or to die,” though now it has been changed to “go for it.” And fortunately for them, my school friends won their game and didn’t have to die.
From that day to this, the Ryder Cup has meant to me, among other things, being booted and spurred in Boston listening to Celine Dion singing at the 1999 Ryder Cup gala dinner. As I looked around at the 699 other guests while the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra serenaded the teams I wondered when was the last time that Lee Westwood and Jean Van de Velde or Tiger Woods or Hal Sutton had listened to Aaron Copeland and how familiar they were with Shostakovich?
Three men have played an important part in this competition and perhaps one way of explaining my enthusiasm for this event is to tell you an anecdote that involves two of them, Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin, captains of the U.S. and Europe teams in the 1987 match. I have covered more than 140 major championships, dozens of Walker, Curtis and Solheim Cups but the memory of listening to Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin on the Saturday morning when fog had delayed the start of play is still clear in my mind and in no way diminished in comparison to any other triumphs.
It took place in a small room at Muirfield Village, Dublin, Ohio, on the morning of the second day. Nicklaus and Jacklin were each sitting in armchairs talking to a small group of journalists. There was no side to the two men for that half hour. This was as close to observing their true feelings as could possibly be. There were no outside influences to be taken into account. No television cameras, no radio mikes and certainly no one was tweeting to the outside world what was being said. Just two warriors, two old friends, speaking quietly and from their hearts. For the informality of it all, we might have been sitting around a campfire.
Jacklin gave the impression of a man revelling in the tactical foreplay that goes on before and during an event such as this. His comments were elliptical, his sentences unfinished. He liked to shrug his shoulders and smile when asked about the secrets of captaincy. It was all working out very nicely for him at that point. Never having won before in the U.S., Europe led 6-2 having won all four fourball matches as well as two of the four foursomes matches on the first morning. An upset was on the cards and that it was to be by my home continent where nearly all my readers lived made it all the more exciting a story for me to be able to write.
Nicklaus in contrast was falsely unconcerned and prickly at times. He was exasperating in his feigned indifference. In a rare burst of candour he blurted out: “You are trying to make a couple of strategists out of us. We are just a pair of old golfers.”
There, in those 20 words he summarised how the balance of power in that, the 27th event between the U.S. and Europe, was beginning to tilt from the Americans to the Europeans. Europe had nearly won at Palm Beach Gardens in 1983, won at home in 1985 for the first time since 1957, and now a first European victory on U.S. soil looked a possibility. The next day it did, Europe winning 15-13.
Nicklaus and Jacklin had been the central characters in the famous concession at Royal Birkdale in 1969 when the Ryder Cup was halved. “It’s fitting today marks the start of Ryder Cup week,” Nicklaus tweeted last Monday. “On this day in 1969 Tony Jacklin and I played the final singles match at Royal Birkdale – our match was even and the overall team score was tied. It ended that way when I picked up Tony’s coin and conceded a short putt on 18. As I told Tony then, “I don’t think you would have missed that putt but I wasn’t going to give you the chance.” That may not only be one of the most generous concessions in golf but it may be three of the best sentences in sport.
Tony Jacklin was a hero of mine long before he captained Europe in the Ryder Cup. He was a hero because of the way he had won the Open in 1970 and then the U.S. Open eleven months later. I came to know him in later years. Indeed, 12 or so years ago I stayed and played golf with him at his home in Florida. This week a biography of his was published: “Tony Jacklin My Ryder Cup Journey.”
And the third man to have played such an integral part in the Ryder Cup? Seve Ballesteros.
On top of the Ryder Cup is a figure no bigger than your little finger. It is Abe Mitchell, the professional who taught Samuel Ryder, the donor of the eponymous trophy, how to play golf. Mitchell was once described as the best golfer never to have won the Open.
But perhaps the figure on the trophy should be Ballesteros, for in recent years no one’s influence on matters to do with the playing of the biennial competition exceeds that of the Spaniard who died 10 years ago. If Mary I of England was said to have the word Calais on her heart because she had lost it in battle to the French in 1558, so it could be said that Ballesteros may have had the words Ryder Cup on his.
Ballesteros loved and lived for the Ryder Cup and was inspirational before it, in it and after it.
Muhammad Ali dominated boxing for years. Likewise, Pele at football and Tiger Woods at golf. In Europe Ballesteros was an equivalent, a man known throughout the continent by his four letter and abbreviated first name – Seve from Severiano. He never tired of talking about it and he sought victory over the Americans as if it was a lifelong crusade. With Ballesteros in the Ryder Cup you had the feeling that if the entire US team, assistant captains, wives and all, were running to get him, he would have raced towards them, confident that he had the beating of them.
It was in a Ryder Cup that Ballesteros played the single greatest shot I have ever seen – a 3-wood from a bunker on the 18th hole of his singles against Fuzzy Zoeller in 1983. I was 20 yards behind the Spaniard as he took his club from Nick DePaul, his caddie, and as soon as I realised how daring his third shot was, shivers ran up and down my spine. The ball flew out of the bunker without disturbing a grain of sand, curved 20 yards from left to right in the air and ended by the side of the green, enabling Ballesteros to halve the hole and his match.
Without Ballesteros the Ryder Cup might not have become the massive spectacle it has. Without it, his name might not have resounded around the world as it did. And to think, I have been writing about golf and thus the Ryder Cup and thus Seve Ballesteros for years. I can’t tell you how lucky and how privileged I feel to have been able to do that.
Is it any wonder I love the Ryder Cup?
Top photo: Hailey Garrett, PGA of America
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?