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Ryder Cup Hype

Is this the best team and the hardest course? Dermot Gilleece Investigates

Posted Sep 10, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

ryder cup 2

Though the big event is still a few weeks away, pre-Ryder Cup hype has already moved into overdrive.  This, we’re being promised, is going to be the match to outdo everything that has gone before, with the greatest teams from either side of the Atlantic set to battle it out at Medinah, the longest course in the history of the event.

Those making the most noise, as in SkySports, have very good reason for so doing, given a very significant financial investment in the biennial tournament.  And a certain amount of the hype is unquestionably justified, not least for the fact that in terms of balance and quality, the 24 players who will be doing their thing at the end of the month, are cumulatively the highest-ranked competitors the Ryder Cup has seen.

But as those of us who have been around the game a while longer than most, have learned, sometimes to our cost, that things in golf are not always what they seem.  For instance, I would argue that the longest course in the history of the event was The Belfry, when it first became the host venue in 1985.  It measured 7,176 yards back then and given the softness of the soil and the nature of club and ball at that time, it would have been playing considerably longer than anything Medinah may have to offer.

Those who would beg to differ should simply consider the 1989 matches at The Belfry.  At a time when the Callaway Big Bertha metal-headed driver was about to be launched onto the world market, Christy O’Connor Jnr faced a second shot of 229 yards to the final green in his crucial match against Fred Couples.  And he proceeded to hit the shot of a lifetime, not with a four or five iron, which would be his weapon of choice these days, but with a two iron.

And before applying superlatives to the composition of the two teams, let us consider the world ranking of 1981, when the top-10 were: 1 Tom Watson; 2  Bill Rogers; 3 Isao Aoki; 4  Jerry Pate; 5 Lee Trevino; 6 Seve Ballesteros; 7 David Graham; 8 Ben Crenshaw; 9 Raymond Floyd; 10 Bruce Lietzke.   Now, let us consider the US Ryder Cup team which successfully defended the title at Walton Heath in September of that year.

In the order of the 12 singles, which, incidentally, were played for the first time on this occasion, it read:   Trevino, Tom Kite, Rogers, Larry Nelson, Crenshaw, Lietzke,  Pate, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller, Watson, Floyd, Jack Nicklaus.   The Bear, prematurely considered to be in decline at that stage, had been ranked fifth in the world in 1980 when Irwin was ranked ninth.  And Kite would come in at number four in the world in 1982.

As can be seen, the only non-Americans in the 1981 top-10 were Japan’s Isao Aoki, who was runner-up to Nicklaus in the 1980 US Open, Ballesteros, who was not considered for the 1981 matches because of a protracted row with the European Tour, and Australia’s Graham, who happened to win the US Open that year. Nelson’s victory in the PGA Championship the previous month, meant that every member of the US team was a Major winner, with the exception of Kite and Lietzke.  And Kite would go on to make the breakthrough with victory in the US Open at Pebble Beach in 1992.

So it is small wonder that that particular 1981 US team is widely regarded as the strongest from either continent in Ryder Cup history.  And the struggling nature of the European team at the time, is emphasised by the lone presence of Ballesteros among those elite practitioners.

For what it’s worth, the European team at Walton Heath, in singles order, was: Sam Torrance, Sandy Lyle, Bernard Gallacher, Mark James, Des Smyth, Bernhard Langer, Manuel Pinero, Jose Maria Canizares, Nick Faldo, Howard Clark, Peter Oosterhuis, Eamonn Darcy.     Predictably, the Americans won by 18 ½ to 9 ½ in what would be the first employment of a 28-point format which continues to be used to this day.

With the absent Ballesteros having shown them the way, however, the Europeans would soon begin to make their own mark in the Majors.  In fact Faldo, Lyle and Langer went on to capture no fewer than 10 Majors between them over the next 15 years, becoming in the process, wonderful role models for fellow Europeans who would develop a rather special affection for Samuel Ryder’s remarkable brainchild.  All they needed was time.

- Dermot Gilleece

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