The 1977 Ryder Cup matches were being held at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s in mid-September. The number of matches had been reduced from 32 to 20, at the behest of Great Britain/Ireland, the perpetual loser in this competition.
The United States had won the biennial matches nine times in a row and 16 out of 17 times dating to 1935. That’s roughly the same rate at which Ohio State defeats the Gophers in football.
The Brits/Irish combination was hopeful that a lack of depth would not be as much of a factor with only one set apiece of four-ball and foursome matches, rather than the previous two sets.
Then again, the home team wasn’t all that hopeful.
Mark James was a 21-year-old rookie for GBI in 1977. Years later, he shared his thoughts leading to those matches:
“The Ryder Cup wasn’t something that preyed on my mind. I was surprised that someone who was such a poor golfer as me could make our side in those days. We only had three or four decent players. We knew we would probably lose.’’
The United States made it 10 straight with a 12½-7½ victory. Dave Hill had clinched the U.S. retention of the Cup with a 5-and-4 win over Tommy Horton. This was the same Dave Hill who finished second in the 1970 U.S. Open at Hazeltine, and declared the course to be a good cornfield.
Things have changed, both for the Ryder Cup and for Hazeltine, set to be host of the 41st edition of the matches, and the 19th since the competition started its journey to relevance.
There were two men responsible for this: Jack Nicklaus and Severiano Ballesteros. Nicklaus had watched Ballesteros, a 19-year-old Spaniard, go into the final round of a 1976 British Open two strokes behind Johnny Miller. He saw this kid’s aura of greatness and decided that Seve could bring some life to the dull Ryder Cup.
Nicklaus sent a letter to Lord Derby, president of the British PGA, after the 1977 matches, suggesting that Great Britain start including players from the Continent on its team.
And that’s what happened: In 1979, the Ryder Cup matches became the United States vs. Europe. Seve couldn’t prevent a 17-11 loss in 1981. Two years later, he was in a monetary feud with Ken Schofield, the new director of the European Tour. Ballesteros didn’t play, and the U.S. cruised to an 18½-9½ victory.
Ballesteros was back on the team in 1983. Germany’s Bernhard Langer was another star. The game was afoot, with the United States winning 14½-13½ at PGA National.
Europe won the next three, and takes another three-Cup winning streak into this week’s matches, and has won 11 of 15 starting with the 1985 matches. And Seve went from a 24-year-old battling with the European Tour in 1981 to maybe the golfer with the greatest appreciation of all for the Ryder Cup.
It was a tribute to Ballesteros when the 1997 matches were held on the Continent for the first time, at Valderrama in Spain. This was Tiger Woods’ first Ryder Cup, and the Yanks were 2-1 favorites in British betting shops.
Seve was the captain and had chosen not to play. You could see why, as he sped around the course, waving patrons off the cart paths.
“I haven’t gone over anybody, so I must be a good driver,” he said.
Europe pulled off the upset 14½-13½. When it was over, Tom Lehman said: “I didn’t see, looking at their lineup, how they could beat us. I still can’t … but you put those guys together, and they get magic in their fingertips.’’
Lehman had seen some Euro magic up close at Oak Hill in 1995, when he played Ballesteros in a leadoff singles match. That would be Seve’s last Ryder Cup as a player, and Lehman won 4-and-3.
But for the front nine … Ballesteros was the golf equivalent of Cirque de Soleil.
The only time Seve hit a fairway was off a branch. Lehman was hitting it pure, and yet he didn’t take the lead until the eighth green. On the day of Ballesteros’ death from brain cancer, in May 2011 at age 54, Lehman recalled that match and said:
“Nobody could have stayed in that match from the places he hit it. It’s the best nine holes of golf I’ve ever seen. He shot even par. I would’ve been 9 over from where he hit it.”
Enjoy the Ryder Cup, patrons. And while doing so, offer a skyward salute to Seve Ballesteros, the creator of this U.S. vs. Europe zaniness.