The history of the Ryder Cup is a fascinating journey – a real metamorphosis if you will – from halting efforts at an international match in the early years to American dominance after World War II and finally to restoring competitive balance with the addition of players from Continental Europe.
The Founding and Early Years
Interestingly, the first true international team golf match did not occur between the U.S. and Great Britain, but rather between the French and the U.S. It was 1913, the first big breakthrough year in golf as 20-year old amateur Francis Ouimet defeated the two leading players in the world, Brits Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, in an 18-hole playoff for the U.S. Open at The Country Club just outside of Boston. But in an event halfway around the world several months later, a four-man team of French professionals soundly defeated an American squad, 6-0, at Versailles. This proved to be the “grand daddy” of all international matches – older than the Walker Cup, the Curtis Cup, the Canada Cup and the Ryder Cup.
The concept of an international team event percolated further as the PGA of America first gave it serious consideration early in 1921. Later in the year the circulation manager of Golf Illustrated promoted what was supposed to be a match between the U.S. and Great Britain at Gleneagles, Scotland as a follow on to the Glasgow Herald’s 1000 Guineas tournament to help build circulation for the magazine. It was not a success as there were few in attendance, but interest was kindled.
At about the same time, Sam Ryder, a successful British seed merchant who made his fortune selling penny packet of seeds to the British public through the mail, ran a series of golf tournaments for the British pros in an effort to promote his company, the Heath and Heather Seed Company. Totally smitten with the game, Ryder hired top-notch British golf professional Abe Mitchell to teach him the game at the princely sum of 500 pounds a year. In discussions with Mitchell and his fellow pros Ryder thought that an international match between the two major golfing nations would encourage international understanding, get more American players to the Open Championship (and conversely more British professionals to the U.S. Open) and help promote Ryder’s penny packets of seeds.
Thus the first Ryder Cup matches were scheduled for Wentworth Golf Club in 1926 as a prelude to the qualifying the next week at Sunningdale for the British Open to be held at Royal Lytham. However, due a strike that shut down most travel into Britain, many of the American players weren’t able to get into the country and the American side had “replacement” players, mostly from British Commonwealth countries. Although the American side, led by Walter Hagen, was soundly defeated, 13 1/2 - 1 1/2, it was a start. As such, Ryder decided to hold the trophy until the next year when the two sides would contain native-born players on each side.
Thus the first “official” Ryder Cup, featuring four foursomes on the first day and eight singles on the second, was held at Worcester Country Club in Worcester, Mass. in June of 1927 as the 10-man U.S. team won decisively, 9 1/2 - 2 1/2.
With the matches alternating between the U.K. and the U.S., each side won on their native soil over the next four Ryder Cups: Great Britain won at Moortown in 1929, the U.S. won at Scioto in 1931 (with Charlie Nicklaus, Jack’s father, in attendance), the Brits winning at Southport in 1933 and finally the U.S. winning at Ridgewood in 1935. But it wasn’t until 1937, with the cup at Southport again, that a non-home team won as the American side prevailed for the first time on British soil 8-4. And, adding some spice to the matches, it was Hagen who led the U.S. side from the beginning in 1927 all the way up to 1937. In 1939 the Ryder Cup was halted for World War II. However, the American side named several teams during the war, playing numerous exhibition matches against challenge teams – once against a team led by the great amateur Bobby Jones – for the benefit of the USO and War Relief.
The Era of American Dominance
With the conclusion World War II, both America and Britain hungered mightily for normalcy – and the resumption of golf. But the Brits, worn out financially by the rigors of war, couldn’t muster the necessary funds to make the trip to Portland, Ore., for the Ryder Cup in 1947. Into the breach stepped one Robert Hudson, an Oregon industrialist, who literally saved the Ryder Cup by bank rolling the Brits’ trip to America. It was a gesture that showed the best of the Ryder Cup spirit, one that Sam Ryder would have certainly saluted.
But the matches were still fiercely contested. On the eve of the 1947 Ryder Cup the British captain, the feisty and combative Henry Cotton, claimed that certain American players – most notably Ben Hogan – were playing irons whose grooves were too sharp, thus making their balls stop abruptly on the greens. Cotton insisted that the American’s clubs be inspected. As a result, all the American’s irons were found to be conforming. So on the eve of the next Ryder Cup in 1949, non-playing American captain Hogan, still recovering from the horrific accident that nearly took his life some 10 months earlier, made a similar claim about the Brits’ clubs. Upon inspection, however, the clubs of two of the British players were indeed found to be nonconforming. As a result, the host pro at Ganton spent the evening filing down the offending irons so as to be ready for play the next morning. But the American side won this Ryder Cup, just as they did in 1947, thus starting an era of almost complete dominance in the transatlantic competition after World War II.
The American side went on to win 17 of the next 19 Ryder Cups, right up through 1983, with a tie coming in 1969 as Ryder Cup “rookie” Jack Nicklaus conceded a 4-foot putt to Tony Jacklin, thus ending the competition in a tie. It was one of the great shows of sportsmanship in the annals of sport, as the U.S. retained the cup having won it two years earlier. The only American loss, in 1957, was an aberration as a clearly outclassed British team upset a far-stronger American team at Lindrick.
The European Resurgence
In light of the continued dominance of the American side, interest in the Ryder Cup appeared to be waning. So, Jack Nicklaus suggested in 1977 to Lord Darby, the head of the British PGA, to expand the British team to include players from Continental Europe to add competitive balance. It was the one move that eventually elevated the Ryder Cup to the first rank of all of golf’s major tournaments.
With players from continental Europe allowed to compete in 1979, the Ryder Cup has become far more competitive – the European side has won eight Ryder Cups outright, retained the cup in another with a tie, while the American side has won seven, but only one of the last five. It gave the competition such wonderful players as Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sergio Garcia and this year’s European captain Jose Maria Olazabal, players with a superlative collective record of 73-41-20.
It’s been said that the essence of the Ryder Cup is pride and passion and raw emotions. I’d agree, but for true golf aficionados – and the competitors too – it’s almost existential, a little bit of life and death.
Quite simply, what Sam Ryder began in 1926 has grown to become the grandest event in the game.
Martin Davis is the historian for Golf Channel and has written or edited 24 books on golf.