In Depth

Ryder Cup: what makes golf's fiercest rivalry so special?

The history, the drama and the grudges that make the Europe vs USA golfing showdown unmissable

Golf's Ryder Cup tees off at Gleneagles next week. The biennial showdown between the best golfers from Europe and the US is regarded as possibly the biggest event in the golfing calendar.

It is certainly the most keenly anticipated showdown for fans, as the two teams from opposite sides of the Atlantic fight it out for the coveted 87-year-old golden chalice.

So where does it come from, how does it work and what makes it so special?

What are the origins of the Ryder Cup?

The first competition between US and British golfers dates back to 1921, when a team of 12 Americans sailed to Britain to compete in The Open. Prior to the tournament an international match was arranged at Gleneagles, won by Great Britain. Five years later in 1926 there was a similar event at Wentworth, again won by GB, which was watched by golf enthusiast Samuel Ryder. Afterwards he drew up plans for a regular competition and the first official Ryder Cup showdown took place the following year in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Who was Samuel Ryder?

Ryder was a golf-mad businessman who made his fortune selling packets of seeds by mail order from his home in St Albans. He had employed golfer Abe Mitchell as his coach and was at Wentworth to watch him play in 1926. He initially wanted to hold the tournament every year, reports the BBC, but it became a biennial event. Ryder commissioned the trophy that bears his name, and the figure of the golfer that sits atop the trophy is a likeness of Mitchell. Ryder also paid several hundred pounds to help the British team get to the first tournament in Worcester, but was unable to attend himself because of poor health. He died in 1936.

When did Europe join?

Great Britain won only three of the 22 Ryder Cups between 1927 and 1977. Defeat that year at Lytham St Anne's made it 20 years without a win, prompting the decision to widen the selection criteria. The idea of including Europe was proposed by American Jack Nicklaus. The inclusion of continental golfers like Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer improved the level of competition and interest, but Europe still had to wait until 1985 to beat the US for the first time since 1957.

How does it work?

The Ryder Cup has always been decided by match play, pitting the players against each other rather than the scoreboard. There are 28 matches, each worth one point to the winners. The first two days see fourball and foursome matches. Fourball matches involve four players, two from each side, and the player with the lowest score wins the hole for his team. Foursomes is more like doubles, with two players from each team taking it in turns to take a shot. The final day sees 12 singles matches as Europe and the US go head to head.

Who picks the teams?

There are 12 players on each team. Nine qualify automatically through their ranking, and three are 'wildcards'. For example Ian Poulter who has a brilliant Ryder Cup record was selected as a wildcard by European captain Paul McGinley, while Luke Donald who had more ranking points than him was left out. McGinlay's opposite number is Tom Watson, the oldest Ryder Cup captain at 65. His age is unimportant as the captains do not play but decide tactics and pairings. There are also non-playing vice-captains. The US have three this year and Europe a record five.

Why does it mean so much?

The Ryder Cup has become one the world's most popular sporting events, partly because it is one of the few that pitches the US against an overseas adversary. It also turns the genteel, individual pastime of golf into blood-and-thunder team sport. And the match-play scoring system pits the players against each other rather than the course. The TV companies also love the drama.

Then there is the fact that it is so close. Before Europe joined the fray the event was dominated by the US. But since 1979 the score reads nine seven to Europe with one tie. Europe have won the last two cups by a single point and of the last 13 tournaments, ten have been decided by two points or less.

Does it get personal?

Yes it does, and there have been some controversial moments, particularly in recent years, as the tension runs high. Tiger Woods has even claimed that the event is marred by gamesmanship.

  • In 1969 there was serious acrimony between the teams and on the second day the captains had to go on to the course to calm their players down. But the match ended on a positive note as Jack Nicklaus of the US conceded a putt to Tony Jacklin on the 18th green and accepted a tie. It denied the US victory but as holders they kept the trophy and the gesture became a legendary act of good sportsmanship, known simply as "The Concession".
  •  In 1979 there was infighting in the first ever European team and Mark James and Ken Brown were handed what were huge fines at the time for allegedly refusing to wear the European team jacket or attend meetings. Brown was banned from international duty for 12 months.
  •  A feud between Seve Ballesteros and Paul Azinger erupted over a scuffed ball in 1989. Azinger questioned whether the ball was damaged, prompting Ballesteros to ask: "Is this the way you want to play today?" He then raised doubts over an Azinger drop at the 18th. It marked the start of the modern rivalry.
  •  Two years later at Kiawah Island, Hawaii, things escalated further at a clash that became known as the "War on the Shore" due to the bad blood and the fanatical American support. Several players were reportedly left in tears by the pressure. Ballesteros and Azinger clashed again and Europe were angry when injured American Steve Pate pulled out of his singles match, meaning the point was shared. The US players also played to the partisan crowd during the event, which took place soon after the invasion of Iraq. The US won by a single point.
  •  The Americans were in the dock again eight years later at the notorious "Battle of Brookline" in Massachusetts. The event had a poisonous feel after a tense build up. At one stage Payne Stewart conceded a match to Colin Montgomerie, apparently out of embarrassment at the behaviour of the home fans. However, before the tournament he had stoked the fires claiming Europe should have been "caddying for the US team not playing against them". The low-point came on the final day when the US team, some fans and even the media stormed the 17th green to celebrate after Justin Leonard holed a crucial putt, even though Jose Maria Olazabal was still to play. The unnerved Spaniard missed his putt and the US won.
  • After Brookline it was acknowledged that things had got out of hand, and several Americans apologised. However, European captain Mark James only added to the controversy by telling them: "You can't pretend that nothing has happened."
  • In 2001 some perspective returned after the event, due to be held in Europe, was called off in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which left some of the American team unwilling to travel. It was rearranged for 2002 and has been held on even numbered years ever since.
  • The last edition of the rivalry has become known as the "Miracle of Medinah" after Europe staged an extraordinary receovery from 10-4 down to win 141Ž2-131Ž2. It highlighted the pressure of match play golf as Tiger Woods missed a putt to hand Europe the win.

Recommended

Rory on Tiger: ‘everyone should be grateful that he’s alive’
Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods at The Memorial Tournament in 2020 (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Why we’re talking about . . .

Rory on Tiger: ‘everyone should be grateful that he’s alive’

Best golf equipment you can use at home
Perfect Putting Mat by Perfect Practice
The wish list

Best golf equipment you can use at home

PGA of America delivers major blow to Donald Trump’s golf business
Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey
In Focus

PGA of America delivers major blow to Donald Trump’s golf business

Dustin Johnson compared to Tiger Woods after Masters victory
Dustin Johnson and Tiger Woods
In Brief

Dustin Johnson compared to Tiger Woods after Masters victory

Popular articles

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 4 March 2021
10 Downing Street
Daily Briefing

Ten Things You Need to Know Today: 4 March 2021

Are Royal aides out to sink Meghan Markle - or is she really a ‘bully’?
Harry and Meghan Markle
Today’s big question

Are Royal aides out to sink Meghan Markle - or is she really a ‘bully’?

Who are the richest people in the world?
Jeff Bezos
In Focus

Who are the richest people in the world?