Quest For The Cup

Golf’s best will battle for the Ryder Cup in September, reigniting a match-play contest that has burned blazing hot for 30 years
By Jeff Williams | From Alex Rodriguez, September/October 2018
Quest For The Cup
Photo: Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
The Ryder Cup has unusually spirited displays. This year expect to see a rematch between 2016 competitors Patrick “Captain America” Reed (pictured) and Rory McIlroy.

Nearly a century ago Samuel Ryder, an English businessman smitten with the game of golf, was looking to put his name on something beyond the penny packets of seeds he sold through the mail. Ryder had the very 21st Century idea that he could market his Heath & Heather seed company by using golf as a poster board. He began by sponsoring some small competitions among professionals in the United Kingdom. Then the idea of a competition between British and American professionals fell within his purview.

I’ll donate the trophy, Ryder said. I’ll pick up some expenses, Ryder said.

My, has the game of golf reaped the bumper crop of what Ryder had sown.

The Ryder Cup arrives on the outskirts of Paris at the end of September as a massive competition of fire and brimstone between American pros and those from Europe, competition that has elevated the taciturn game to its emotional acme. From the first Ryder Cup in 1927, backed by a seed business, has sprouted a financial gold mine worth tens of millions of dollars, or euros, or pounds sterling—whatever the currency of choice. And while Ryder, as an Englishman, might be appalled that the competition is being held on French soil for the first time, he no doubt would be elated that his name is now immortalized, and the game he so loved has benefited from his initial generosity (and, of course, his self interest). 

The Albatros Course at Le Golf National in the southwest suburbs of Paris is the host of this year’s Ryder Cup, the 42nd edition of the ultimate match-play competition between the United States and Europe. The Americans are the defending champions, having won decisively at Hazeltine in 2016 and holding an overall 27 to 14 lead since the biennial competition began. But since the teams from Great Britain and Ireland were expanded to include players from continental Europe in 1979, the Europeans have an 11-8 advantage. 

It was Jack Nicklaus in 1977 who pushed the idea of including European players on the Great Britain side. He was fearful that the event was fading into oblivion because the Americans had been so dominant. What a wise move it was. It would bring Bernhard Langer of Germany and José María Olazábal of Spain into the mix. But crucially, it brought the man who would come to symbolize the passion of the Ryder Cup, Spain’s Seve Ballesteros.

Ballesteros ignited the Ryder Cup in the 1980s in a way that Arnold Palmer ignited the game of golf in the 1960s. Like Palmer, Ballesteros was perfect for the television age, his talent piercing through TV screens and bringing with it the highly charged emotional component of his personality. The Ryder Cup couldn’t have had a better poster boy.

The spirit of Ballesteros carries on all the way to the Champs-Élysées this September. The Americans are captained by Jim Furyk, the Europeans by Thomas Bjørn. Patrick Reed, the reigning Masters Champion, has become the American firebrand. Sergio García has been the European counterpart. Golf fans around the world are eager to watch golf’s ultimate duel. But this monumental tussle among the world’s best players wouldn’t have been possible without the groundwork of five Ryder Cups that fueled the imagination and showcased match play golf at it’s very finest.

1983 PGA National

During the 1977 Ryder Cup at Royal Lytham in England, officials of the PGA of America and PGA of Great Britain tossed about an idea to make the Ryder Cup more competitive. The U.S. victory at Lytham gave the Americans 10 straight Cups, and it had become a yawner. Jack Nicklaus, a member of the team, suggested to British PGA head Lord Darby that players from continental Europe be included in the future. It was a seminal moment. 

In 1979, the competition was now the United States versus Europe. The result was the same, a lopsided victory by the Americans, but for the first time a young, dashing, tremendously talented Spaniard was part of the team—Seve Ballesteros. At 22, Ballesteros was coming off his first major victory that summer, the British Open, and although he won only one point in four matches at the ’79 Cup, a spark was lit within his golfing soul. 

Ballesteros was at full fire in the 1983 matches at PGA National. Only 26 at the time, he was paired by captain Tony Jacklin with 20-year-old Briton Paul Way in the four team matches, and they won two and a half points out of the possible four. Ballesteros fought to gain a half with Fuzzy Zoeller in Sunday’s leadoff singles match, hitting an outstanding 3-wood out of a fairway bunker on the 18th hole. The Americans barely won, 14 1/2 to 13 1/2, their 13th straight victory. 

But as Way would recount later, Jacklin had given Ballesteros the task, eagerly embraced, to be Way’s mentor, a job Ballesteros took upon himself for the remainder of his remarkable Ryder Cup career. “You have to be like a father to Paul, you have to guide him,” Way recalled Jacklin telling Ballesteros.

“We were all pretty down as we had come so close to inflicting on America their first defeat in 26 years,” said Way. “But Seve was an inspiration, telling us ‘This isn’t a defeat, this is a win.’ ” The stage for future victory had been set, and the future of the Ryder Cup would never be the same.

1987 Muirfield Village

Ten years after Nicklaus suggested to include European players, the Ryder Cup was played at his Muirfield Village Club in suburban Columbus, Ohio. It was 60 years after the first Ryder Cup at the Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts, and during that entire time the American team had never lost on its home soil.

But the 1987 Europeans were a powerhouse. Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer and Ballesteros were all major winners. Europe had six players who would accumulate 18 majors.

Olazábal was a Ryder Cup rookie that year. Ballesteros wanted to play with him and mentor him, and captain Tony Jacklin followed his wishes. The two Spaniards would become the most potent pairing in Ryder Cup history.

Ballesteros and Olazábal edged Payne Stewart and Larry Nelson in the opening foursomes match. They followed with a victory in the afternoon fourball over Curtis Strange and Tom Kite. On Saturday they won their third straight match, a foursomes triumph over Ben Crenshaw and Stewart. In the afternoon they lost to Hal Sutton and Larry Mize, but their three points over two days (along with Faldo and Ian Woosnam’s 3 1/2 points) had propelled the Europeans to a 10 1/2-5 1/2 lead heading into the Sunday singles.

The Americans launched a blistering counterattack on Sunday, closing the gap to 12-11. But in the 10th match of the session (out of 12) Ballesteros sank a putt on the 17th hole to defeat Curtis Strange 2 and 1. That turned out to be the Cup winner, giving the Europeans their first victory in America by a score of 15-13.

With the biggest crowds ever to see a Ryder Cup in America, there was a definite amping up of nationalistic noise in 1987, a precursor of the fervor that was to come in subsequent Cups. In a massive departure of the assumed etiquette of the game, there was some cheering for poor shots and missed putts by the opposition. The roars for the American team were sometimes deafening, but the Europeans weren’t deterred one bit. 

“We all went to America quietly confident,” Jacklin would say later. “The different feeling from previous matches was that we had the Ryder Cup and wanted to put the icing on the cake by winning for the first time in America.”

Golf was turning into a team sport. 

1991 Kiawah Island

This was the Cup that changed everything. This was the War by the Shore.

The battle at Pete and Alice Dye’s then-brand-new Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, in September of 1991 forever elevated the Ryder Cup and forever stirred its emotional cauldron. There was high drama, controversy, conflict and unprecedented spectator fervor (not to mention a fair amount of crudeness from the American fans). There was also some pretty compelling golf, from great shots to choke jobs. And for the first time, all three days of the event were televised. This is where the Ryder Cup moved into the upper echelon of sports. 

The Americans had been dominant through the first six decades of the Ryder Cup, but the Europeans had won three straight and rode their Concorde across the Atlantic like a chariot in Ben Hur. And the simmering conflict between Ballesteros and Paul Azinger raised its ugly head. In 1989, Ballesteros wanted to replace a scuffed ball midmatch, but Azinger disagreed. During the opening foursomes match at Kiawah on Friday, Ballesteros questioned whether Azinger and partner Chip Beck had correctly changed balls on the seventh hole. Before the event began, Ballesteros referred to the American team as “11 nice guys plus Azinger.” 

“The king of gamesmanship doesn’t like me?” responded Azinger. “Good. A feather in my cap.” 

Ballesteros and Olazábal were the only Europeans to win in the morning foursomes. The Americans took a 3-1 lead, spearheaded by the pair of veteran Ray Floyd and emerging star Fred Couples. The Europeans bounced back in the afternoon fourball to pull within a point with Ballesteros and Olazábal winning again.

The Americans stretched the lead to three points Saturday morning, then in the afternoon, the Europeans won 3 1/2 points, leaving it all square going into the Sunday singles. (American Steve Pate had been injured in an auto accident, so only 11 matches were played.) Europe galloped to the front with a match win by Nick Faldo over Floyd. That was followed by David Feherty—yes, that David Feherty—winning against Stewart. Then came what seemed a crushing half in the match between Mark Calcavecchia and Colin Montgomery. Calcavecchia had been up four holes, then gave them all away down the stretch, including a snap slice into the pond on 17 followed by missing a two-foot putt that allowed Monty to win the hole with a double bogey. Calcavecchia retreated to the dunes after the match ended, to cry. 

The Americans clawed their way back into it and it came down to the final match, Hale Irwin against Langer. Irwin needed a half to seal the victory. The tension wasn’t just palpable, it was downright tortuous. Both players stumbled their way home. On the 18th both missed the green, then Irwin choked a 70-foot pitch shot halfway to the hole. Langer rolled his shot to six feet. Irwin two-putted for bogey, leaving Langer with a putt to win the hole and the Ryder Cup. You could just about see the pressure ridges in the air. Langer missed and the Cup went back to the Americans.

“I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t swallow,” said Irwin afterward. “The sphincter factor was high.”

The Americans carried captain Dave Stockton over the dunes and threw him into the Atlantic Ocean. Stockton knew that something had happened way beyond a golf match victory.

“It all came together,” said Stockton. “It changed the dynamics of the Ryder Cup, the competition of it and what people thought of it.”

1999 Brookline

The Americans followed up their 1991 victory with another at The Belfry in 1993. But then the Europeans triumphed at Oak Hill in 1995 and eked out another win at Valderrama in Spain in 1997 with Ballesteros as their captain. The 1999 American team assembled at the Country Club at Brookline outside of Boston was formidable and seemed the clear favorites. There was the fully fledged Tiger Woods, superstars David Duval and Phil Mickelson, plus stalwarts like Stewart, Tom Lehman, Davis Love III and Justin Leonard. But there was also a sense of disarray—the professionals were never paid to play the Ryder Cup, but its soaring revenues got some American players wondering why they weren’t getting something out of it. With some of his team being branded as greedy, American captain Ben Crenshaw admonished several of his top players about their stance on Ryder Cup revenue. (The issue was ultimately settled with large donations to player charities.)

Whether the controversy had any bearing on the American play is open to debate, but after two days of foursome and fourball play they trailed the Europeans 10-6 going into the Sunday singles. No team had ever overcome such a deficit to win the Cup.

Crenshaw addressed the media upon completion of play Saturday, first taking the time for a cigarette to calm himself down. After answering a few questions, he started pointing his finger. “I’m going to leave you all with one thought,” he said. “I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this. That’s all I am going to tell you.”

Crenshaw gave a long, cigarette-filled pep talk in the team room that night, along with plenty of speeches by the players, and a speech by a guest, then-Texas governor George W. Bush.

The Americans won the first six matches on Sunday and never surrendered. It came down to Leonard’s match against Olazábal where the American needed a half to win the Cup. Leonard drained a 45-footer, which ignited a tumult on the 17th green as American players, wives, television crews and a few spectators raced to congratulate Leonard while running across the line of Olazábal’s putt, one he would eventually miss.   

European assistant captain Sam Torrance called the celebrations “the most disgusting thing I’ve seen in my life.” Lehman, who had been one of the exuberant celebrators, admitted the actions had been “over-the-top.”

The Cup was notable for one other reason. The shirts the Americans wore in the final, which Crenshaw had a lot to do with designing, were a maroon number with historical golf pictures strewn about. They were likely the most memorable—and reviled—golf shirts in the history of the game.

2012 Medinah

Now it was Europe who would face the same 10-6 deficit that the Americans had overcome in 1999 going into the Sunday singles matches at Medinah Country Club outside of Chicago. Europe held the Cup, and needed 8 points to keep it. The Americans needed 4 1/2 points to take it back. This would become Ian Poulter’s Ryder Cup, and his play in the Saturday afternoon fourballs started to turn the tide for Europe even though it ended the day down by four points. As Feherty said after Poulter had reeled off five straight birdies: “It’s tied 10-6.”

That night Olazábal, the European captain, invoked the spirit of the late Ballesteros, who had died a year earlier of a brain tumor. The Europeans again wrapped themselves in team spirit. Olazábal said they needed to win the first five matches, and they did just that.

They did it despite a timing error by McIlroy, who thought his match against Keegan Bradley, who had become an American firebrand, was at 12:25 when it was actually at 11:25. It took a police escort to get him to the course on time. That he arrived with 11 minutes to spare and had a chocolate bar for lunch didn’t seem to matter. He put on a brilliant display and defeated Bradley in the third match out, which followed a victory by Poulter in the second match over Webb Simpson. 

Rose defeated Mickelson in the fourth match, and Mickelson applauded Rose’s 40-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole. After Jim Furyk made two late bogeys to lose his match, it would come down to the German Martin Kaymer against the usually dependable Steve Stricker. But when Stricker three-putted the 18th, that left Kaymer with a five-footer to win the match and retain the Cup. He poured it in and Europe celebrated with a 14 1/2-13 1/2 victory.

Poulter won all four matches he played, his putter a magic wand, his personality an inspiration. Afterward, he wouldn’t take credit though he had certainly earned it. “It was not about me, or this putt or that putt, or this birdie or that bogey,” he said. “It was about collective self-belief, about not accepting it was done. Absolutely nothing is over until it is over.”