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Controversy and Sportsmanship at the Ryder Cup

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece looks at the fierce competition between players at the Ryder Cup

Posted Sep 14, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

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With the big event still a few weeks away, fears are already being expressed as to the sort of reception Tiger Woods may get from Ryder Cup galleries at Celtic Manor.  There's almost a sense of foreboding that over-zealous European supporters might somehow let the side down.

The fact, of course, is that the Ryder Cup has a long history of questionable behaviour, the more notorious of which has come not from fans but from players and officials.  Indeed Henry Cotton, as playing-captain of the British team, was the centre of controversy on the eve of the 1947 matches in Portland, Oregon, where he demanded an inspection of the American clubs.

Though no official reason was forthcoming, the suspicion was that the grooves on the Americans' clubs were imparting more than normal spin and were thereby illegal.  US skipper, Ben Hogan, agreed to an inspection and nothing untoward was discovered about the clubs on either team.  But Hogan wasn't about to let Cotton off the hook.  So it was that on the eve of the 1949 matches at Ganton, where he was non-playing captain due to horrific injuries sustained in a car crash earlier that year, Hogan demanded an examination of the home team's clubs.

The upshot was that several British players had to file down the grooves, ostensibly with a view to reducing backspin.  The Hawk had exacted revenge.  And his players rubbed salt in the wound by coming from behind to win the matches 7-5.
Incidentally, the Ganton staging was also notable for the mouth-watering supplies which the Americans took with them to post-war Britain. Aware that foodstuffs were still in short supply, they travelled with rations of: 600 steaks, 12 sides of rib for roasting, a dozen hams and 12 boxes of bacon. Some observers felt they had insulted their hosts by suggesting that British food would be somehow inadequate, but such details would have been of no concern to Hogan.

These undercurrents were as nothing, however, compared with the open warfare which erupted during the 1957 matches at Lindrick, where the home team recorded a memorable triumph. It was perhaps not surprising that the focus of the ill-temper was the match between Scotland's Eric Brown and the notoriously volatile Tommy Bolt, he of club-throwing fame.

As it happened, Brown crushed Bolt by 4 and 3 in the top singles. Later, in the locker-room, Bolt snapped ungraciously: "I guess you won but I didn't enjoy it a bit."  There are two versions of Brown's reply. The sanitised one is: "Nor would I have done, after the licking I've just given you."  But the version which includes one of two choice expletives  seems more in character with the abrasive Scot.

Some years later, another defeated player was prompted to remark: "Losing the Ryder Cup did not bother me as much as the behaviour of the galleries.  All that cheering when we missed putts.  I've never known anything like it before."   A European comment after Brookline in 1999?  Not so. This was the reaction of America's Peter Jacobsen to the defeat at The Belfry in 1985.

By way of contrast, there was the terrifying experience of what had then become the British and Irish side for the 13th staging at Eldorado CC in Palm Springs, California in 1959, when their charter flight out of Los Angeles ran into a violent storm while crossing the San Jacinto mountains. As a consequence, the plane plummeted like a stone from 13,000 feet to 9,000 feet before the pilot regained control.  After returning safely to Los Angeles, the players formed the "Long Drop Club."

And there have also been wonderful memories for both the players and spectators.  Like when Dai Rees complimented Jimmy Demaret on his bunker play during their match at Pinehurst in 1951. Handing his opponent the sand iron, Demaret said: "Keep it, Dai, as a gift.  The one you've got has too sharp an edge and you'll never have any finesse with it."

Years later, Rees recalled: "I took the club to Britain and had it copied for my own set.  So, although I lost the match, I came away with a profit."

Then there was the gesture by Jack Nicklaus at Royal Birkdale in 1969.  As his opponent, Tony Jacklin, stood over an 18-inch putt on the 18th, Nicklaus knew that if he missed, the American team would gain overall victory.  At that moment, the Golden Bear stepped forward, picked up Jacklin's marker and said: "I'm sure you would have holed, but I was not prepared to see you miss."  The overall result was a tie and the sporting rivalry conceived by Samuel Ryder, received its finest endorsement.

- Dermot Gilleece

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