Having grown from vulnerable sapling to malnourished youngster to superpower sequoia, it’s fitting that the 89-year-old Ryder Cup got its name and trophy from a man who made his fortune selling seeds.
Born March 24, 1858, in Walton-le-Dale, England, Samuel Ryder was an entrepreneur, a Sunday school teacher, a justice of the peace and mayor of St. Albans in 1905. What he wasn’t until his 50s was a golfer. And even then he only took to the links after his preacher recommended the game as a way to combat ill health with fresh air.
Yet today, Ryder’s name and the gold cup he donated are what 24 professional golfers from the United States and Europe covet as the spoils of golf’s pre-eminent international competition. The United States will try to avoid its first four-match losing streak when the biennial tournament’s 41st meeting comes to Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska.
“I’ve been to 12 golf majors,” said Patrick Hunt, chairman of the 2016 Ryder Cup and a longtime Hazeltine member who has helped with two of his club’s four men’s majors. “As much as I love and enjoy majors, I’ll take a Ryder Cup any day.
“Think about it. This is only the 21st time it’s been held in our country. It takes only 10 years of majors to get to 40. And yet, despite the smaller number of Ryder Cups, you can look back and see some of the most amazing moments in golf history.”
Asked to select the top moment in Ryder Cup history, PGA of America golf historian Bob Denney doesn’t hesitate. He chooses what’s known as “The Concession,” a 2 ½-foot putt that Jack Nicklaus conceded to Tony Jacklin on the 18th hole in the final singles match at Royal Birkdale in Lancashire, England, in 1969.
Nicklaus’ gesture, while still retaining possession of the Ryder Cup, halved the match with Jacklin and ended the team competition with its first tie.
“That,” said Denney, “became the symbol for sportsmanship in the game. And it set the tone for the modern-day relationship between the teams.”
The United States had won 14 of 17 Ryder Cup matches and was riding a run of 12 wins in 13 meetings. Interest in the fledgling, lopsided Ryder Cup series was low and it would be another 10 years before Great Britain and Ireland (GBI) would join forces with the rest of Europe.
GBI showed its frustration early in 1969 when captain Eric Brown forbid his players from helping the Americans search for lost balls. Then, on the final day, Jacklin, the reigning British Open champion, gave his team momentum in the morning singles matches when he beat Nicklaus, the world’s best golfer, 4 and 3.
Nicklaus had missed many short putts in the morning. But he showed his grace later that day when he picked up Jacklin’s ball marker and handed it to him on the 18th green.
“I don’t think you would have missed that putt,” Nicklaus told him, “but in these circumstances, I would never give you the opportunity.”
U.S. captain Sam Snead reportedly didn’t view Nicklaus’ decision as favorably as history has.
1991’s ‘War by the Shore’
Asked to pick the second-most significant moment in Ryder Cup history, Denney moves ahead to 1991 and the “War by the Shore” at Pete Dye’s torturous Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina. Widely considered the most exciting, pressure-packed Ryder Cup of them all, the Americans won possession of the trophy for the first time since 1983 when Bernhard Langer missed a putt of about 5 feet on the final stroke of the final hole of the final match of the tournament.
“It’s going to stick with me for a lifetime, that putt,” Langer said after halving his match with Hale Irwin to give the U.S. a 14 ½-13 ½ victory.
Irwin wasn’t a picture of composure, either. Both players bogeyed the last hole. Irwin chunked a 75-foot chip 20 feet short and missed the putt to shift the palpable pressure and must-see TV moment onto Langer.
“I’m telling you what,” Irwin said. “I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t swallow, I couldn’t do anything. … I could barely hit the ball.”
The exciting golf and the unbridled patriotism that was on display soon after the Gulf War provided the springboard moment for how big the Ryder Cup has become. But the initial spark that set things in motion toward that day actually came during the 1977 Ryder Cup at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, when Nicklaus went to British PGA President Lord Derby separately from the PGA of America to champion the idea of expanding the field of competitors to all of Europe.
“At that point, Great Britain and Ireland had won only once since 1933,” Denney said. “The Ryder Cup wasn’t a big-ticket item, and the networks didn’t carry it. Both sides were talking about expanding, but Jack had the name, the recognition and the power, so he rightly gets history’s biggest push behind it.”
The change was made in time for the 1979 Ryder Cup. Nicklaus didn’t make the team that year, but the Americans won. They won again in 1981, with a team featuring 11 players who had won or would win at least one major, and again in 1983. But Europe was gaining momentum behind players such as fiery Spaniard Seve Ballesteros and Langer.
Denney’s choice for third-best Ryder Cup memory is Justin Leonard’s 45-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1999. It’s also one of the more controversial moments in Ryder Cup history because of the Americans’ ensuing celebration on the green before Leonard’s playing partner, Jose Maria Olazabal, attempted his 22-foot birdie putt.
As soon as Leonard’s putt dropped, the U.S. players, their wives and even some NBC cameramen rushed onto the 17th green to celebrate. The Europeans were furious and insisted that a cameraman had stepped in Olazabal’s line during the celebration. Captain Sam Torrance called the whole thing “disgusting,” and critics singled out Minnesota native Tom Lehman for being among the most raucous celebrants.
When order was restored, Olazabal missed his putt, guaranteeing the Americans the half-point they needed to win the match 14 ½-13 ½. The comeback from down 10-6 entering the final day was the largest in Ryder Cup history and was matched by the Europeans in 2012.
By 1999, the series had turned chippy with plenty of bad blood adding to the intrigue and pressure. No two players symbolized the heightened competitiveness between the teams better than Ballesteros and American Paul Azinger. They accused each other of cheating during the 1989 tie at the Belfry and carried the feud into future matches.
Ballesteros once referred to the U.S. team as “11 nice guys plus Azinger.” To which Azinger responded: “The king of gamesmanship doesn’t like me? Good. A feather in my cap.”
Europe’s organization and passion for the Ryder Cup began to outdistance the Americans’ noticeably in 1987 when Europe won at Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. It was Europe’s first win on American soil and its first back-to-back wins. Since 1983, Europe is 10-4-1, including 6-1 in the past seven matches.
But it certainly appears as though the Americans, like Popeye, have had all they can stands, and they can’t stands no more. After losing 16 ½ to 11 ½ at Gleneagles in Scotland in 2014, the U.S. developed a task force and overhauled its format for selecting players. Hazeltine is the first test for this new approach.
Sewing the seed
Golf historians can’t seem to agree on who came up with the idea for these matches first. James Harnett, a circulation manager for Golf Illustrated, reportedly thought of it in 1920.
There were two unofficial matches in 1921 and 1926, but no Harnett Cup. There was, however, a Ryder in the gallery watching the action in 1926.
Samuel Ryder had been sponsoring golf tournaments locally and wanted to host an official international competition. He also had the money to execute the plan that would put his name on the gold cup he would donate.
About 30 years earlier, Ryder began selling penny packets of seeds through the mail. Few thought the business would succeed. But, like the Ryder Cup itself, the concept took root and grew larger than anyone could have imagined some nine decades ago.