In Depth

Ryder Cup: a legendary contest

The intercontinental challenge has created moments of great drama - and sportsmanship

What is it about the Ryder Cup, a contest which pits Europe’s finest golfers against an equally formidable cohort of Americans, that inspires such intensity of emotion from participants and spectators alike? Why do golf’s greatest exponents – men who thrive in the pressure-cooker of major singles tournaments – talk in such awed and humbled tones about the experience of performing as just one element in a 12-strong team?

“It doesn’t matter how many Open championships or titles that you may have won,” Arnold Palmer once said. “When you stand on the tee at the Ryder Cup match and play for your country, your stomach rumbles like a kid turning up for his first tournament.”

Part of the explanation is that these competitors have trained themselves to be almost uniquely self-reliant, performing solo in front of thousands of people. With the Ryder Cup, however, professional golf’s mental game is turned on its head. The mechanics of performance are the same, but the golfer is no longer playing just for himself. He and his 11 high-achieving teammates, all rivals for the rest of the year, now suddenly depend on each other. And there is no prize money on offer.

The format undoubtedly helps to bond the team. Over three days they play 28 matches, whose outcomes are determined by the number of holes won. Eight of the matches are foursomes, in which two golfers from each team take alternate shots; another eight are four-balls, in which two teams of two players compete individually to win the holes. By the nerve-jangling final day when all 24 golfers contest 12 singles matches, the competitors have already ridden a roller-coaster of emotions.

‘I have a good feeling about this’

The 2021 Ryder Cup will be held at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin from 24-26 September, a year later than scheduled due to the pandemic. It is the 43rd competition in the tournament’s history, the inaugural event having taken place in 1927 at the Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts, US. Informal matches had taken place between British and American teams for several years, but in 1927 the competition was formalised by English entrepreneur Samuel Ryder, with a new tournament and trophy bearing his name.

The introduction in 1979 of European participation in the Ryder Cup was among the most significant innovations in the competition’s history. Until that year the US had competed only against golfers from “Great Britain and Ireland”, and had enjoyed almost uninterrupted success for nearly half a century. But in 1985 Team Europe, captained by Tony Jacklin, secured a memorable 16½-11½ victory. Since then, the balance of power has swung back towards the old continent, with Europe achieving ten Ryder Cup victories to America’s five.

Recent years have produced some unforgettable contests. In 1999, Europe led 10-6 going into the final day, prompting American captain Ben Crenshaw to announce: “I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this.” The US went on to earn 8½ points out of the remaining 12 to triumph 13½-14½ in “The Battle of Brookline”. A European team captained by Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal pulled off a similarly spectacular comeback 13 years later to win by the same score after trailing the US 10-4. The media dubbed it “The Miracle at Medinah”.

But many point to the conclusion of the 1969 Ryder Cup, at the Royal Birkdale Club in Lancashire, as the most extraordinary incident in the competition’s history. “The Concession”, as it is now remembered, saw Jack Nicklaus concede a short putt to Tony Jacklin, halving the final hole of the tournament and, in the process, the match and the Cup itself. The American’s brave gesture has been celebrated ever since as an example of true sportsmanship.

 

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