Like the FIFA World Cup and The Superbowl, The Ryder Cup is an event that transcends sport. The biennial showdown between the best golfers in Europe and the US is a treat for golfers and general sports fans alike. Taking place this year at Hazeltine, MN, the USA are on a mission to take home the Samuel Ryder trophy for the first time in eight years. Today we will have a look at some of the greatest moments that took place in America in a tournament history littered with great drama and moments of sheer genius!
The first point of significance here was that this was the first ever draw in Ryder Cup history. The 1969 event was the debut of Jack Nicklaus and during his singles match against Tony Jacklin he made one of the most sporting gestures in the history of golf- ‘the concession’. This was a huge moment in golf as America’s rising star faced-off against the then Open Champion, Tony Jacklin.
On the final hole of the final match, Nicklaus stood over a tricky five-foot putt. He’d later admit, “I was terrified. I was putting for my country”. Strong words from the player with the most major victories in the sports history. He sank it! This left Jacklin with a missable two-foot putt which he needed to earn Team GB&I a draw. Before he could even place his ball on the green, Nicklaus picked up his opponent’s marker and conceded the putt. Much to the dismay of some of his teammates, this was a fantastic gesture of sportsmanship and an example of the classiness of the man they call the golden bear.
The astute among you may have noticed that the previous moment, above, was between USA and GB&I rather than Europe. After fifty years of domination by the US (18 wins, 3 draws and only one loss) many, including Jack Nicklaus, suggested an expansion to an all-Europe team. This was a development that created the Ryder Cup as we know and love it to this day.
The 1979 matches were the first time we saw the European Ryder Cup hero Seve Ballesteros too. It was also the first time that Nicklaus had not made Team USA. It had been hoped that by reformatting the event that it would make the matches more competitive and closely fought. It was not successful and the US won 17-11. It was, however a significant development in the event’s history and created one of the greatest rivalries in sport.
Just as they had in 1969, Nicklaus and Jacklin met again in the Ryder Cup but this time as team captains. The entry of the European team had turned out to be a great move and the event was becoming a more closely fought affair. Europe were gaining momentum and were surely closing in on a victory on American soil.
As the event progressed to the final day the teams were tied at eight points each. Now in his third Ryder Cup and quickly becoming the talisman of the European team, Seve Ballesteros was up against Fuzzy Zoeller in the first match of the singles session and they had reached the final hole all-square. Seve had squandered a three-hole lead and the pressure looked to be getting to the charismatic Spaniard as a poor tee shot found a fairway bunker. The final hole at the PGA National is a par five and he left himself with a 245 yard sand shot. Zoeller had hit a good tee shot and looked to be in great position.
It’s fairly well documented that Seve was strong of mind. As he approached his ball, and the lengthy second shot facing him, it was clear that he knew what he was going to do, he was going for it! In this lies the whole spirit of the Ryder Cup, that ‘do or die’ attitude that results in miraculous golf shots. Seve’s ball was fairly close to the lip of the bunker and to most it would have been a forced lay-up. Ballesteros isn’t most though and he hit one of the sweetest three-woods in golf history. He managed to escape with the half although a 6.5 to 5.5 win by USA on the session would eventually give them the trophy.
As the teams headed to South Carolina Europe were the defending champions. The rivalry between the teams was continuing to grow as the matches had become ever tighter and more competitive. The matches played at Kiawah Island were intense and there was a palpable edge to the whole event. Much like in 1969, the whole event came down to the final hole of the final singles match.
Two future Golf Hall of Fame inductees, Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer, were locked in a tight duel. Team USA had not taken home the trophy since 1983 after consecutive losses in ’85, ’87 and a draw in ’89. USA were unfamiliar with this position and more than ever, and in parallel with the build-up to the 2016 Ryder Cup, needed the win. The competition was fierce!
The exuberant behaviour of the American players and the crowd caused real tension with the Europeans. The tension continued to build to fever pitch and by the eighteenth hole in the final match was incredible. Imagine the tension facing Langer as he sized-up a six-foot putt on the last to force a second draw in a row and the retention of the trophy for Europe. He missed, and the rest is history!
The Country Club, in Brookline Massachusetts, was the story of golf in America had begun. It was a fitting place to hold the final Ryder Cup of the century then but a real partisan crowd and unpleasant atmosphere really added more tension than ever before. USA were hurt having lost the last two matches in a row and they were on a mission not to lose this one. Both sets of fans were behaving more like football fans than golf fans and with America trailing by four going into Sunday things were really on edge. US captain Ben Crenshaw described his team reaching desperation point and feeling good about their chances as he aggressively top-loaded his team for the singles. As the matches progressed the American team were gaining all of the momentum and actually won the first seven matches to take the lead.
It was, as it so often does, looking like it would come down to the final match between Justin Leonard and Jose Maria Olazabal. Team USA needed just half a point more and Leonard had won five of the last seven holes to be in charge of the match. At the seventeenth Leonard sunk a miraculous putt of about forty-feet and sent his teammates into frenzy! They ran around the green celebrating the hugely significant shot. This angered Team Europe as Olazabal still had a putt for a half and they accused some of their opponents of running across the Spaniard’s line. Jose missed the twenty-five foot putt and America claimed the victory.
One of the most special things about the Ryder Cup is the unrelenting passion shown by the competitors. They are playing for more than themselves and for money, they are playing for their teammates and the millions of fans glued to every shot. Players and captains often refer to fate and destiny being factors in the matches and never was this more evident than in 2012 at Medinah. Europe travelled to Illinois with heavy-hearts as in 2011 they had lost their hero. Seve had died after a long battle with cancer and fittingly his best friend Jose Maria Olazabal had been awarded the captaincy for this event. Emotions were incredibly high but going into the final day’s play Europe were in bad shape and trailing 10-6. USA required just 4.5 points from the 12 available to win the trophy, but much like in Brookline, momentum for the chasing team quickly began to build.
Europe were to end up winning 8 of the 12 singles matches with All Square’s own Martin Kaymer rolling in the decisive putt to seal the win for Europe. Olazabal dedicated the win to his late friend Seve in an interview in which he struggled to find words as he battled his emotions. Call it fate, call it destiny or call it whatever you want, the events at Medinah were brought about by a team pulling together and being inspired by one of the greatest figures in European golf. The maestro Seve may not have been there physically but yet again he had been instrumental in a European win. It will be interesting to see if our recent loss of Arnold Palmer can have a similar effect in rallying the American effort.