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Ryder Cup: A difficult birth, a turbulent growth, change coming?



THE Ryder Cup has seen almost 100 years of bi-annual golf clashes across the Atlantic, firstly between the best USA and Britain or Ireland professionals and then USA versus Europe, building up from informal matches to one of the sport’s greatest and exciting encounters.


The very early clashes between US professionals and the British-Irish tended to be one-sided in favour of the latter, probably because their top amateurs had been competing at the highest level among themselves already for around 50 years. There was therefore low interest at first among the media and also golf followers. Thus it became a challenge for pioneering enthusiasts with the necessary money and sustained interest to keep the international matches going.

Among the moneyed men on both sides was a core which retained their vision regardless. They included primarily Walter Hagen, by far the best American player of his time and who was relentlessly active. Also, a Manchester (later St Albans) seed merchant, Samuel Ryder, who made his millions selling small packets of seed at £1 a time. Ryder had powerful philanthropy motives, was a determined lobbyist and strong supporter of the concept of golf competition across the Atlantic every two years. But in those early days there was no structured sponsorship and no title at stake between about 1920 and 1927.

The sequence of distorted large victories by the British continued through those eight years and beyond. But very soon this changed right around. The Americans established their Professional Golfer Association, thus encouraging the growth of bigger and bigger tournament prize funds that improved standards. The British professionals remained for some years almost exclusively employees of clubs. They were even, in most cases, banned from entering clubhouses. Hagen famously changed all that when he once parked his hired Rolls Royce outside one clubhouse and used it as a change room. Snooty club members nationwide got the picture. Hagen went on to captain the first six US Ryder Cup teams.

In 1927, the first Ryder Cup proper was arranged. But it was a difficult birth. Continuing low interest by media and by the public resulted in a “whip round” of clubs for the prize money falling woefully short of what was needed. To save the day, the undeterred Samuel Ryder and some American businessmen made up the necessary difference. The American players amazingly maintained their superiority for around 50 more low-key years, continuously threatening the annual golf bonanza, before the obvious and saving solution was at long last brought about. It was decided to dispense with the old concept of USA versus GBI and bring in Europeans. Why this took so long will surely puzzle historians. The introduction of the cream of continental players made all the difference. Though not right away. The dramatic change took place in 1979. Real competition came about with the introduction of Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and others. Competition consequently became fierce as national pride became more and more remorseless. Europe won 26 of these matches.  Some matches overstepped the traditions and courtesies of the game due to the intense desire to win, with gamesmanship, disregard of etiquette in some cases and even allegations of rule breaking.

But on the positive side, it all combined to stimulate massive newspaper/television interest, and even some unwanted and unpleasant involvement by “rabble-roused” spectators.

On the “plus” side, an exciting match-play formula presented for 12 players a side, making up arguably the best 24 in the world, one or two Asian and other continent players excepted, became entrenched. Within this formula, defensive foursomes were followed by attacking fourballs, each format requiring its own disciplines. And then on the third day 12 singles matches, involving the entire teams blindly selected by the captains, offered almost half the total of 28 points, thus creating excitement on the final day with the two teams determined “at all costs” to reach the necessary 14 ½ points for victory, or 14 points for a tie and retention of the cup for previous winners under the rules of engagement. The present holders are Europe, having defeated USA 17 ½ to 10 ½ in Paris. Highlight was Francesco Molinari winning all five of his matches, four of them with partner Tommy Fleetwood.

Meanwhile, a significant change of emphasis in international golf is seen to be taking place. A new wave of professional players has emerged from the Far East and Asia, primarily from China in recent years. There is speculation within a widely held opinion they will develop into a force that will challenge the strengths of the US and also Europe. This new factor in international golf might one day have to be faced by the Ryder Cup authorities. There are said to be upwards of 600 professionals now registered in China alone. Only a few have so far reached any sort of prominence but there are positive signs of impending talent by volume. They are still in the “acorn” stage but one day we will surely have many “oak trees.” Many big-name British, American and European professionals have already created new courses and clubs throughout the East. Standards are bound to improve. The growth is as certain as the rising sun. Can the Ryder Cup ever become a three-way match? Fortunately, the question is not for me to ponder.

Ryder Cup rivalry between the Americans and Europeans has occasionally degenerated into unfortunate instances of bad and unacceptable behaviour, with poor etiquette and even the alleged bending of rules rearing up. Over-excited rivalry has morphed several times into unacceptable one-upmanship. Spectators have been dragged into it.

There were, for instance. the notorious “War on the Shore” at Kiawah, the “Belfry Footprints” saga, the “Unpleasant Brookline.” Even planned disruption of sleep with early-hour phone calls to the Europeans’ hotel, was devised by local newspapers and carried through by locals.

Kiawah Island in South Carolina in 1991 presented a really tough course buffeted frequently by high winds off the Atlantic Ocean. Europe had held the trophy for six consecutive matches through the previous 12 years and the Americans decided to throw their intensity and volume into a turnaround. The Europeans had been gloating about their recent record and that also spurred an attempted reversal by any means possible. A video history of the Ryder Cup was shown at the opening ceremony, entirely focused on the Americans. This was seen by the Europeans as a snub. Then on the eve of the match some of America’s media hatched a plot to encourage frequent early-hour phone calls to the European hotel so as to disrupt their sleep. More than 25 000 locals poured onto the course from the opening day, yelling and cavorting while wearing military-style baseball caps, waving flags and shouting comments, especially on European backswings. It became known as the “War on the Shore.” Of etiquette there was little. The US achieved victory by a single point.

Tensions during 2002 at The Belfry in England’s Midlands began when US captain Tom Watson instructed Payne

Stewart not to autograph a menu for Europe player Sam Torrance, thus unpleasantly breaking a long-standing tradition. He thought that it would raise tensions favouring his team, but he was still no match for the retaliatory gamesmanship of Seve Ballesteros in many other respects. On the 15th green, veteran Ray Floyd walked all over the line of Peter Baker’s putt, leaving marks. Baker had been warned about the likelihood of Floyd’s antics, like ripping a golf glove off during a swing. Baker complained later that the Americans were also not averse to even breaking the rules. The US won 15-13.

At Brookline Country Club in 1999, the American Press was campaigning for US fans’ over-enthusiasm and stirring things up. This resulted in excessively loud and sustained cheering and making loud remarks at critical moments, with Colin Montgomerie their main target. Andrew Coltart’s ball suspiciously went missing. The wife of a British player claimed she was spat at. In one vital late singles match, between Justin Leonard and Jose Maria Olazabal,

Leonard holed a 45-foot putt that apparently seemed to him to square the match. There was bedlam. The American players, their wives, caddies and a section of the crowd raced in jubilation on and around the green, many right across Olazabal’s line. He was wrong, but did he know that? Olazabal still had a putt, actually to win the hole and square the match. But he had to wait for some minutes while order was restored. It was no surprise when he missed.

Wild celebrations by both sides were now common during the day’s play match. At another hole Tom Lehman raced 50 yards down the fairway after holing out, fist-pumping the crowd. America eventually won by a single point. Brookline and the other two venues will always remain scars on the Ryder Cup, even though they happened around 20 years ago.

The Ryder Cup has now recovered its former courtesies. But the rivalry and competitive edge remains at full tilt, built up for days, even weeks, before the upcoming clash, with rival captains Steve Stricker and Padraig Harrington in the front line. The two 12-man teams are due to be announced shortly, nine chosen by a points system over a certain period, three by captains’ picks, a tough and undoubtedly controversial task.

Golf is not a “fireworks” sport – the Ryder Cup is most certainly excepted. What would Mr Ryder think today?

*Veteran author and journalist John Kelley writes exclusively for The NewsHawks.