In May of 1921 a small group of American professional golfers travelled to Great Britain by steamship. Upon arrival a friendly competition was proposed and a 10 man team match was held at the Kings’ Course at Gleneagles, located in Auchterarder, Perthshire, Scotland, the city with the longest street in the country. The Brits won. In 1926, England’s storied Wentworth Club hosted a match between 10-man American and British teams the week before the Open Championship. In 1927, the first event to be called the Ryder Cup was played between the US and Great Britain. The US won.
The Wentworth Club
In 1998, I played Wentworth’s famous Burma Road course. That’s my gentlemanly English opponent handing me a 5 pound note.
Ryder and his brother James were partners in Heath and Heather, a herbal remedy company. Sam was an avid golfer and a shrewd merchant.
In 1923 the Ryder brothers sponsored a 36-hole medal-play invitational for four dozen professionals. The Ryder brothers donated the trophy for the 1927 match that was held at the Worcester (Massachusetts) Country Club, earning the event the name Ryder Cup.
The US and Great Britain alternated wins in the first four Ryder Cups. Then the US won 20 of the next 21. Jack Nicklaus, one of the four greats on golf’s Mount Rushmore, was also a gentleman. In golf’s greatest gesture of sportsmanship, Nicklaus conceded Englishman Tony Jacklin’s short putt for a tie, all that was needed to retain the cup for the US. The US captain, Sam Snead was furious. He said “It was ridiculous to give him that putt, We went over there to win, not to be good ol’ boys.”
Snead was a West Virginia rustic who learned to play golf barefoot. He earned his nickname “Slammin’ Sammy” for his ability to drive golf balls a long, long way. Considered a colorful personality by all, Snead liked to say things like, “Keep close count of your nickels and dimes, stay away from whiskey, and never concede a putt.” Even today, golf’s greatest players say Snead had the greatest natural golf swing ever. In 1944, Snead was given a medical discharge for the US Navy for having a bad back. My favorite Snead quote? “The three things I fear most in golf are lightning, Ben Hogan and a downhill putt.”
Snead was tough on other golfers and known for telling ProAm partners things like “You’re standing too close to the ball – after you hit it ” and “Take three weeks off and then quit for good.”
Jack William Nicklaus earned a degree in pharmacy and was going to join his father’s business until deciding to play golf for a living. The first check he cashed from the PGA Tour was for $33.33. Jack went on to win 18 major tournaments, ahead of Tiger Woods’ 14 and Walter Hagen’s 11. Ben Hogan and Gary Player won nine each. Phil Mickelson is in 16th place in major wins with six.
Jack Nicklaus and me
This photo above is Jack and me on the 11th tee at Doral in 1989 when I was a tournament volunteer Hole Captain.
Nicklaus was a disciple of Bobby Jones, the greatest gentleman golfer of all
Jones was an engineer, lawyer and amateur golfer of great stature. In 1930, Jones won all four of golf’s most prestigious events. He won the US Open and US Amateur championships and the British Open and Amateur championships, too. No one before had ever come close. Writer O.B. (Out of Bounds) Keeler, Jones’ amanuensis, called it the Impregnable Quadrilateral. Everyone else called it golf’s Grand Slam.
A fair fight
The US PGA tour had the best pro golfers in the world. England, Scotland and Ireland, the cradles of golf, were no match. Jack Nicklaus suggested it would be more fun for everyone if golfers from the entire continent played as the European Team. This brought in Seve Ballesteros, Miguel Angel Jiminez, and Jose Maria Olazabal from Spain, Germany’s Bernhard Langer and Martin Kaymer, the Molinari brothers from Italy, and Henrik Stenson and Jesper Parnevik from Sweden.
The first US vs Europe Ryder Cup was played in 1979 at the Greenbrier Club in White Sulphur Springs, Virginia
The Greenbrier had been the home of Sam Snead since 1936 and he remained their ambassador until his death in 2002. The US won.
It proved to be a fair fight for a while
Then the pendulum swung Europe’s way and they have won seven of the last 10, including a record-setting rout yesterday at Whistling Straits, in Kohler, Wisconsin.
The Kohler family are today’s equivalent of the Ryder brothers
Kohler has built bathroom fixtures since John Kohler was inspired by a cast iron water trough in 1873. A shift in the time/space continuum and the US and Europe would be playing for the Kohler Cup and a trophy with a toilet on top.
The captain of the American team is one of the most liked and well respected men in golf. The easygoing Stricker is from Wisconsin, so many of the fans were pulling for the hometown boy to win. Me, too.
In 2002 I played in a PGA Pro-Am tournament in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with Czechoslovakian Alex Cejka
As I walked down the first fairway with my brother Al beside me on the bag, Cejka’s caddy said, “I’m going to be giving Alex yardages all day, but pay no attention because Alex likes it in meters.”
Golf’s Biggest Show
The Ryder Cup is by far the biggest event in golf. It has taken on such celebrity status that many of the attendees go just for the spectacle. Dressing up in outrageous costumes has been big with people who want to get on television since the days of Let’s Make A Deal.
There are huge skyboxes and grandstands everywhere and more drinking, shouting and bad behaviors than at events where the spectators come to watch the golf. The Ryder Cup is as much an outdoor theater performance as a golf match.
Out with the old
One of the reasons for Europe’s recent dominance is that the US kept up the good ol’ boy method long after it proved unsuccessful. Too many US captains used their picks unwisely and sometimes chose old friends instead of the best golfers for the team. US Captain Lanny Wadkins chose his pal Curtis Strange and the US lost. Three Ryder Cups later, US captain Curtis Strange repaid the favor by picking Lanny Wadkins. The US lost again.
Steve Stricker ignored the worn-out notion of needing a team of veterans and chose six players who had never played in a Ryder Cup before. None of them had the unpleasant experiences of all those losses during the long dry spell, either. In all, eight US players were under 30 years old. No more media darlings like Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed. And now the Euros are the old ones. Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia are on the downslopes of great careers. Ian Poulter is no longer able to lead the charge.
Eldrick Tont Woods
Tiger Woods is one of the greatest individual golfers of all times and his championship play earned him a spot on Ryder Cup after Ryder Cup. So much is made of his greatness that adoring fans are unaware of what a lousy team player he was in Ryder Cups. Playing with a teammate, Woods’ record is 9 wins, 19 losses and one tie.
Golf’s Mount Rushmore
In chronological order, golf’s four greatest players of all time are Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
All the American golf announcers immediately declared 2021’s lopsided win is only the beginning of a new US dominance. For updates, check back in 2023, 2025 and so on.
My Ryder Cup Record
In 1999, I partnered with Dan Wilkins, PGA pro, against Russell Meredith and John Walker. The Brits won the match at the final hole and my record is 0-1.
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