The Day European Golf Came of Age


Muirfield Village was one of the first Jack Nicklaus designs, done in the mid-70s just outside Jacks native Columbus, Ohio. Nicklaus wanted a very special tournament, one which would one day be viewed as a major.
The PGA Tour granted it special status, declaring it an invitational, the same as Arnold Palmers Bay Hill. The Memorial was patterned after the Masters with green the dominant color. The past three years, the champion has been Tiger Woods, one of the greatest players in history. But to look at Muifields defining moment in golf history, one would probably have to look past the tournaments and go to 1987, when the Ryder Cup was held there.
Nicklaus was to captain the American squad, pitted against Tony Jacklin of Europe. Jacklin and his team bolted to an impressive 16 - 11 victory the preceding match at The Belfry in 1985. The U.S. had chafed about the loss for two years.
Everybody on this side of the ocean believed it was just a quirk, that Muirfield and Jack would right the ship and the U.S. would resume its winning ways. After all, America had never lost on its home soil in the Ryder Cup in the 60-year history of the matches. And absolutely no one believed that now would be the first, not with Nicklaus as captain.
That September morning in 87, the first two matches went as expected. Englishman Howard Clark popped his opening drive into a bunker to start the Ryder Cup. Curtis Strange birdied the second. He and Tom Kite were out quickly to a comfortable 4 and 2 victory, followed immediately by Hal Sutton and Dan Pohl ' 2 and 1 winners over Ken Brown and Bernard Langer.
Then, things quickly got interesting. Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam ' one of the most successful pairings in European history ' went up-and-down all morning with Larry Mize and Lanny Wadkins. The Americans birdied the first hole and went on to make the nine-hole turn 4-up ' surely a winning effort to match the first two.
Faldo nailed a 3-iron to begin play on the backside, however, and Woosnam sank the five-foot putt for a birdie. Wadkins found sand with his drive at the 12th and the European team won another ' 2-down. Wadkins missed another drive at 14 and the visitors were now just one behind. The Brits squared the match at 15 with a beautiful 1-iron to the center of the green from 250 yards, then went 1-up at 17 when Wadkins putt hit the hole and ricocheted, and Mize missed the ensuing shorty. The Americans lost the final hole with a bogey and the Europeans, who were down four with nine left, won going away.
What was the visitors motivation? We dont need any motivation, said Faldo. We are playing for history. Its like playing for your life.
From that point on, Europe was a formidable opponent, indeed. Larry Nelson had a perfect 9-0 Ryder Cup record, but when he was matched with Ryder rookie Payne Stewart, the pair fell to another veteran who was playing with a rookie ' Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. Ballesteros and Olazabal would go on to post the highest win percentage in European team history, and they started with a 1-up win in the closing match of the first day. The Americans, who early on looked like certain winners, were suddenly tied at 2 - 2.
The afternoon matches were all Europe, the visitors winning all four matches to a 6 - 2 lead.
This has nothing to do with money, American Tom Kite would say. Its bigger than that. This is playing for Uncle Sam. And Sam expects a lot.
Nicklaus sent out a warning to his players. Everyone of my team has played now, he said. From now on, Ill pick only the best players. Ive told them, If you dont win, you dont play.
Day 2 was the day the U.S. determined to reverse the slide, but the reversal wouldnt come. The morning result was 2 - 1 Europe, the afternoon matches were split, 2 - 2, and going into the final day, Europe was comfortably ahead, 10 - 5.
Could America actually lose, on a great American course with a great American ' Nicklaus - as captain? For the first time, that possibility appeared legitimate. And in five of the first seven singles matches, the European made bogey. Was it possible that the Americans could change possibly their biggest defeat into their biggest comeback?
Andy Bean defeated Ian Woosnam in the opening match, but Howard Clark turned it around by beating Dan Pohl in the next match, both players struggling home with 75s. Sam Torrance and Larry Mize halved, which was a virtual European victory considering the visitors now needed just 2 points.
The news from the course, however, was encouraging for the Yanks. The U.S. led in six of the nine matches, and in the three they did not lead, they were either tied or very near the lead.
Mark Calcavecchia defeated Faldo for another U.S. point, but Olazabal nudged Europe closer to its goal when he defeated Stewart on the 18th green. Kite performed beautifully in outdueling Sandy Lyle, but a tough break doomed Ben Crenshaw in his match with Eamonn Darcy. Crenshaw snapped his putter and had to putt most of the match with an iron.
I remember breaking my putter on the sixth green, said Crenshaw. I just tapped it down on a walnut, and it snapped. It was like somebody shot me.
Crenshaw actually holed a couple of long putts to keep the match going until the final hole, but bogeyed the 18th to lose the match. Europe now needed just two more wins.
Larry Nelson and Bernhard Langer halved, and Europe was a single point away from victory. There was some criticism over the Nelson defeat since he accepted Langers offer of a half at 18, though both players stood about three feet from the cup. However, Ballesteros won the Cup on the very next match, defeating Curtis Strange on the final hole.
They (the Americans) almost pulled it out, but we did not win the 18th hole in any match, and we lost the 18th in three crucial matches, said Nicklaus. We just werent as touch in the stretch as the European guys.
The U.S. won the matches Sunday, 7 - 4, but lost the war, 15 - 13. I never thought Id live to see golf played at the level it was played Friday and Saturday, said European captain Jacklin. Today? Ive never been so worried.
The Muirfield of Scotland has become famous as a legendary venue for the British Open. But the Muirfield of Ohio became legendary for Europes first success in America, a signal that golf had truly became a world sport.