The first official Ryder Cup was contested in 1927 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Since that inaugural event, the Ryder Cup has grown to become a biennial sporting phenomenon, as legendary players like Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, and J.J. Henry have done battle across historic tracks such as Muirfield, Oak Hill, and Old Warson Country Club.
As with every long-running sporting event, there have been memorable moments. Bernhard Langer’s missed putt in the 1991 War by the Shore looms large, as does Justin Leonard’s improbable putt and the U.S.’s subsequent celebration in Brookline. There have been epic runs (Poulter’s birdie barrage in 2012), improbable shots (Poulter’s chip-in on 15 in 2014), and Seve-fueled comebacks (the miracle at Medinah) – and that’s just the crap that Ian Poulter’s affected in recent years.
The Ryder Cup’s long history has also had its share of curious occurrences. The one that springs to mind first is Rory’s police escort to make his tee time in 2012. But, with the help of the internet and a wonderful book that my mom got me for Christmas a few years ago, here are a handful of other notable moments from the 90-year-old tournament.
Harnett starts it up
Yes, the first Ryder Cup history nugget hails from six years before the actual tournament began. The story of who came up with the idea to stage an international golf challenge is a murky one, and many people lay claim to some part of the genesis of the Ryder Cup. But according to my handy book, the “greatest drive and determination to achieve the fixture” was shown by one James Harnett, a circulation rep for Golf Illustrated.
As players began to cross the Atlantic in both directions in search of golfing glory, the idea of a U.S.-vs-Britain showdown cropped up. Harnett sensed a business avenue (more golf = more readers), and lobbied for America’s country clubs to pitch in some funds to send a dream team of American golfers to the British Isles for a team competition. Many clubs were hesitant, but Harnett eventually got his wish, and then some. The idea grabbed the attention of the USPGA, and they voted to allot $10,000 towards the cause of sending a 10-man American team over to Britain. The two men chosen with picking this squad? Walter Hagen and James Harnett.
Upon arrival in Scotland, the American team found that the luxurious Gleneagles Hotel had yet to be completed, and were forced to sleep in converted train cars with no bathrooms or running water. Great Britain won 9-3 (with three halves).
As far as I can tell, nothing interesting happened between the start of the Ryder Cup and the 1970s. Ben Hogan captained the 1947 US team to an 11-1 thrashing in Portland, Oregon, a tournament that was surely heard by at least two dozen radio listeners in Great Britain. The U.S. retained the cup in every tournament from then until 1985, but a few fun things happened in the meantime.
Trevino gets silly
These also aren’t technically Ryder Cup stories, but they’re too good not to relate. The Ryder Cup stuff is coming, promise.
There used to be a TV series in Britain called International Pro-Celebrity Golf, which is exactly what it sounds like – a series of exhibition matches with golf pros and celebrities held at Gleneagles. In the ’70s, Lee Trevino was up to his usual antics. He played an 18-hole match with head Gleneagles pro Ian Marchbank, Trevino putting with a Coke bottle and Marchbank with a claw hammer. The match was halved, because the golf gods have a sense of humor.
Marchbank also claimed that during a practice round on the Gleneagles Queen’s Course, Trevino stood on the tee of the par-3 17th and put 14 balls on the green – one with every club in his bag.
“There was a gallery of maybe 50-60 people,” Marchbank said, “and it was absolutely amazing to stand and watch him. The putter didn’t even go along the ground, he just opened the face up and knocked it up in the air. Driver, everything. 14 balls. He is something, he really is.”
Gallacher craps out
Scotsman Bernard Gallacher lives for the Ryder Cup. At 20 years old, he was the youngest player ever to represent Great Britain when he made his debut at the 1969 Ryder Cup. He went on to play in eight Cups and captain Europe three times. Sadly, his 1973 tournament was cut short by a bad piece of fish.
After the first day’s play, Gallacher had to have been pleased with himself and partner Brian Barnes. They had won their morning match over Lee Trevino and Billy Casper, then repeated the feat with a 5&4 rout over Tommy Aaron and Gay Brewer in the afternoon. According to Gallacher, they enjoyed dinner at a local hotel and all ate from a set menu. That night, Gallacher’s sleeplessness owed much more to his dinner choices than any Cup-related nerves. Sweating, feverish, and a night on the bathroom floor – it was a classic case of food poisoning. “It was just one of those things,” said Gallacher, “nobody else got sick, I got sick. It was an unexplained thing.”
An unexplained thing, and an unexpected gift for the American team. Europe’s most formidable pairing was felled before it could deliver two more blows, and Gallacher’s replacement Peter Butler was given only 90 minutes of notice before his morning tee time. The Butler-Barnes pairing lost both Day 2 matches, though Butler did become the first player to record a hole-in-one in Ryder Cup history.
Jack concedes, then expands
Most people who follow golf know the story of Jack Nicklaus conceding the putt to Tony Jacklin on the final hole of the 1969 Ryder Cup. Jacklin had a three-footer to ensure the tournament ended in a draw. Since the U.S. was the defending champion, they’d retain the cup either way, and so Nicklaus picked up Jacklin’s marker and gave him the putt in a display of unmatched sportsmanship and goodwill.
Eight years later, the Golden Bear was at it again, this time on a larger scale. It’s hard to imagine now, with the American team mired in a slump, but in Jack’s era the team had grown bored of winning.
“‘We won almost every time,” Jack said. “In 1977, Weiskopf went on a sheep hunt up in Alaska rather than coming to play in the matches. You had guys making the team, but they didn’t really care if they played or not.”
Saying it would be “the best thing for the game…and the matches,” Nicklaus proposed to the British PGA that their Ryder Cup selection process be expanded to include all players on the newly created European Tour. His will was done, and the tournament became the spectacle we know and love today.
Barnes fells the Bear
The 1975 Ryder Cup was played at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Lingonier, PA, a scant 20 minute drive from captain Arnold Palmer’s hometown. The Americans won in a 21-11 rout, but Brian Barnes (he of the Gallacher-Barnes pairing from earlier) had his day in the sun.
On the final day’s singles matches, he took down Jack Nicklaus twice – 4&2 in the morning, and 2&1 in the afternoon. The tournament had been decided by the time the morning matches ended, so Nicklaus actually spoke to Palmer and had him arrange a rematch against Barnes in order to keep the gamblers interested. Don’t say Jack never did anything for the degenerates out there.
Also, let’s take a second to acknowledge the fact that Jack Nicklaus played on an Arnold Palmer-captained Ryder Cup team. That’s the definition of legendary.
The curious case of Andrew Coltart
If that name doesn’t ring any bells, don’t worry. It shouldn’t. Coltart’s all-time Ryder Cup record reads 0-1-0. In his only Ryder Cup match, Coltart was given the unenviable task of dueling with Tiger Woods. His 3&2 loss was one of the many casualties that Europe suffered that day in the midst of the massive United States comeback, but it stands out for a few reasons.
First, because Coltart only played that one Ryder Cup match ever. Sending the dude out totally cold to face 1999 Tiger Woods is like starting Jacoby Brissett against JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and the Houston Tex– wait, bad example. The point is, the guy stood no chance.
Secondly, his sister is married to Lee Westwood, if you’re into European Tour family gossip.
And finally, Coltart stands out because in his one and only Ryder Cup match, he managed to stir up a gamesmanship conspiracy.
After he lost he tee shot left on the 9th hole, Coltart said he “was directed into the trees, to a place [he] knew the ball could never be.” After the requisite five minutes of searching, Coltart had to return to the tee and hit his third. Moments after this embarrassing shot landed, his first ball was miraculously “found” just a few yards off the fairway – tantalizingly playable, just minutes too late. Did the rules officials have it out for the rookie against the Big Cat? Or did his ball just bury into the thick Brookline cabbage? The world may never know.
The 2014 Ryder Cup continued the trend of American futility. We all remember Tom Watson’s turbulent (to say the least) captaincy, the mercurial Spieth/Reed pairing, and the mutiny at the post-tournament press conference. But a few moments from the most recent tournament have been lost to the endless churn of the golf content machine. Since I was lucky enough to be among the spectating hordes two years ago, I’ll touch on a few of the less-heralded occurrences at Gleneagles.
Simpson’s rough start
The USA team of Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson were saddled with the honor and privilege, as well as the responsibility and pressure, of leading off the 2014 Ryder Cup. And if their nerves weren’t already frayed by the cacophonous noise raining down from the grandstands ringing the first tee, they were thrown just a bit more off their game during the player introductions.
In golf, there is no more legendary starter than Ivor Robson, the flute-voiced Scot who served as the official starter for all European Tour events from 1975 until his retirement in 2015. Every great player in the last half-century has heard his name come hooting out of Robson’s mouth like a curious barn owl, and Simpson surely expected as much when he stood on the first tee of the Gleneagles Centenary Course, poised to hit the first shot of the 2014 Ryder Cup.
And then this happened.
Both Watson and Simpson seemed to take it all in stride, but I still think this was a bit of gamesmanship, rather than simply a mistake, from sneaky Sir Robson.
After the mix-up, Simpson proceeded to go down in Ryder Cup infamy by nearly whiffing his tee shot. He put some kind of helicopter follow through on it in a salvage effort, but the damage was done, and his shot barely made it to the fairway.
He even earned an idiot mark for his troubles.
tut tut Webb Simpson ! pic.twitter.com/CYUeUkj7tj
— Andy Duncan PGA (@andydunk666) September 26, 2014
Kuchar shows pop
Although some here at NLU aren’t fond of a certain gangly Skechers-wearing, dad-joke-making, smile-offering Georgia resident, I’m the one writing this and I’ll come right out and say it. I Love Matt Kuchar.
Sure, the guy doesn’t hit it a mile. But he’s consistently among the top 10-15 players in the world, swings a club like he’s sneaking up on a doomed housefly, and is just a genuinely good dude.
That last point is usually irrelevant when it comes to his potential success on the golf course, but it becomes an asset in a team competition like the Ryder Cup. Tom Watson, in his infinite wisdom, chose to send Kuchar out three times out of four possible team matches, and each time with a different partner. Though he came away empty-handed, Kuchar put up a strong effort in the Saturday fourballs by combining with Bubba Watson for a score of -9 through 16 holes against Europe’s killer Rose/Stenson combo.
Bubba and Kuch came to the 15th hole 2 down, and Stenson produced another brilliant iron shot into kick-in birdie range. Bubba was off doing God knows what, so it fell to Kuchar to keep the Stars and Stripes level. After stalking his way around the green for what felt like an hour, he punched a delicate fairway wood from the fringe and watched it bounce and roll some 30 feet, until it found the center of the cup for a halved hole. The place went bonkers.
Yes, they lost the next hole and the match. But it was a great moment, and he gave us some hand sandwiches.
Spieth’s bunker blues
On Saturday afternoon, the U.S. kept their young stud pairing of Reed and Spieth together, with mixed results. The twosome set fire to the the overmatched pairing of Thomas Bjorn and Martin Kaymer in the morning, winning 5&3. Then, in the afternoon foursomes, things started out hot again for Patty and the Golden Boy as they faced Martin Kaymer and Justin Rose.
The Americans were 2-up through 11, but Europe clawed their way back to a tie by the 15th. After Reed missed a gimme that would have won the 16th, Spieth stuck an iron in close on the par-3 17th, and the match came to the final hole all square. Reed piped a drive down the center of the fairway, then neglected his tee the same way a degenerate gambler does his family on Thanksgiving.
Spieth had an uphill look at the putting surface from something like 230, and put it into the front right bunker. We were standing on the hill along the left side, about even with the trap, and we saw the reactions of the crowd across the fairway from us – the ball was absolutely plugged into the lip.
Spieth couldn’t see the landing spot from where he was, because the hole played mighty uphill. To illustrate – I took this walking across the fairway during a practice round.
Looking down towards the 18th tee:
And up towards the green:
I must have had a premonition, because I took this photo on Tuesday. The Spieth bunker.
The drama of a live Ryder Cup is hard to imagine. There are only four matches out on the course during a session, so the massive galleries have far fewer options between which to split their viewing. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that more than 75% of the fans on the property were watching the 18th hole between Reed/Spieth and Kaymer/Rose. And along with the faceless masses, dozens of team hangers-on are split between every match. When Kuchar chipped in, we high-fived with the wives of several PGA Tour higher-ups who were inside the ropes, as well as captain Tom Watson who had ambled over. Vice captains, caddies, players who have that session off – sometimes it feels as crowded inside the ropes as it does outside.
And all of these people saw Spieth’s trademark, sleeve-worn emotion bubble over when he crested the rise in the fairway and spied his ball wedged into the face of the bunker.
@ShaneRyanHere I was 20 feet away – utter despair. Spieth also went hands to mouth/half crouch the moment he saw the lie
— Robbie Vogel (@RobbieVogel14) September 27, 2014
It’s those little moments that make the live viewing experience that much powerful, and show that the players really do treat this event as something special.
Despite Johnny Miller’s assertion that this is the best U.S. Ryder Cup team ever assembled, it looks like we’re in for another hard-fought three days. It’s hard to say who will hoist that trophy when the dust settles, but we can certainly count on coming out of the weekend with a handful of memorable moments, as well as one or two stranger-than-fiction stories like those above.