Ryder Cup tide bound to turn

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Before the Ryder Cup became the schadenfreude parade that it is now, the only reason to keep score used to be so everyone would know when it was over. From 1959-83 the United States never lost. In 1967 after European captain Dai Rees went through lengthy introductions for each of his 12 players, Ben Hogan, the U.S. captain, stood up, motioned to his team and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the 12 best players in the world,” and then sat down. It was typical Hogan ... but he was wrong.

Jack Nicklaus, who had won seven majors to that point, wasn’t even on the U.S. team.  The PGA of America had a rule that a player had to serve a five-year apprenticeship as a pro before he could be granted full membership, and only then could he begin to accumulate Ryder Cup points. Nicklaus was granted membership in June 1966, and the cutoff for accumulating Ryder Cup points was the following year's Masters. Despite being the two-time defending champion at Augusta, Nicklaus missed the cut and wound up 13th on the Ryder Cup points list. And there were no captain's picks at that time. The same antiquated rule had kept Arnold Palmer out of the Ryder Cup until 1961. No matter - three days after Hogan's terse introduction the United States won, 23 1/2-8 1/2 (from 1963-75 the Ryder Cup consisted of 32 matches), which is the largest margin of victory in the almost 100-year history of this event.

I think what Hogan meant and saw no reason to draw out was that sitting beside him were the 12 best players in that room.


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In 1989 captain Ray Floyd, while introducing his team, on foreign soil no less, pungently echoed Hogan’s words from over two decades before. Sitting in that room — and not on Floyd’s team — were Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam. The late scribe Grantland Rice might have called them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Together they were the nucleus of Death, Destruction, Pestilence and Famine, at least to the American dominance in the Ryder Cup.

All four of these men would ascend to No. 1 in the world. All four would partner and win with players far less skilled than themselves and the history of each of them became the history of all of them.

Like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson had done from the early '60s to the early '80s, Europe’s “Four Horsemen” wrong-footed the opposition. But more than that, they obliterated what the Ryder Cup had been. By beating the Americans they turned a cult into a major religion.

Of course this stands to reason. Seve, Nick, Bernhard and Woosie were the best players in the world and the Ryder Cup is to golf what the Pro Bowl and the All-Star Game are to football and baseball: a venue for the best to show off.

And when the best face off against each other, over time the talents of each side see-saw to bring the contest to an equilibrium.

Don't believe it? Let's look at Major League Baseball's All-Star Game and the NFL's Pro Bowl.

Since the inception of the All-Star Game in 1933 (when Babe Ruth hit the first homer in All-Star Game history to lead the American League over the National League), the NL has won 43 to the AL’s 40, with two ties. There have been eras when one team dominated the other - from 1963-1982 the NL won 19 of 20 games but since 1988 the AL has won 20 of 27, wth one tie - but overall the results have been largely equal. 

A tally of runs scored mirrors the results; AL 349, NL 355. 

Football's Pro Bowl dates to 1950 but since 1971 it has pitted the AFC and the NFC. Over that time the NFC has 22 wins to the AFC’s 21.

Parity gets a bad rap, but it’s alive in baseball, football and golf.

Now to the Ryder Cup, which the U.S. leads all time 25-12-2 but is currently in a cycle of European dominance. Europe has won seven of the last nine matches, but a longer view takes us back to 1979, when the Great Britain and Ireland team was expanded to include all of Europe. Over that period Europe's lead is just 9-7-1. And since 1979 out of a possible 476 points, Europe has 241 1/2-234 1/2 for the U.S. In the last 17 Ryder Cups these two teams are separated by just seven points, with two of those points coming in the last two contests.

Taken as a whole, it gives one a different view of Europe’s dominance of late.

Perhaps this is the year that the Americans reverse the trend. But then maybe the Ryder Cup has become something so different from its origins, so animated, so confrontational, so jingoistic that it no longer suits the insulated sameness that it is to be an American millionaire Tour player.

Maybe the sour taste of the losing records of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk has impacted this generation of U.S. players the same way the spirit of Seve lives in Garcia, Westwood and in particular Poulter, who plays this event with the swollen arrogance of Henry the VIII. But it is all of this ... the losing and the yelling and the screaming and the history and the singing that make the Ryder Cup the greatest week in golf. Regardless of who wins.