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Tony Jacklin with Sandy Lyle and Nick Faldo after Europe's Ryder Cup victory in 1985. Tony Jacklin captained Europe to their first ever Ryder Cup victory in 1985, the United States hadn't lost it since 1957 to Great Britain.

The History of the Ryder Cup

After shaking the hand of Hunter Mahan on the 17th green at Celtic Manor, ending the 38th Ryder Cup Matches two years ago, Graeme McDowell was swarmed by a mass of supporters, an overhead camera catching the celebratory sea of humanity engulfing the golfer from Northern Ireland, who looked skyward while still clutching his putter, overcome with emotion.

It was a passionate, heartwarming scene—if an American can admit as much—the kind that has become synonymous with the biennial competition. McDowell’s reaction also reinforced why the Ryder Cup holds such a special place in the minds and hearts of those who love golf. An individual sport most of the time, golf, when played under the Ryder Cup umbrella, becomes a spirited exhibition pitting team, country, pride, pressure, a little gamesmanship, a lot of sportsmanship. The greats who have played in it, from Gene Sarazen to Ted Ray, Ben Hogan to Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo to Colin Montgomerie, Seve Ballesteros to Sergio Garcia, and Tom Watson to Tiger Woods, would likely echo what McDowell said after he clinched victory for Europe in 2010: There’s no greater honor, nor greater pressure, than representing your side when it’s time to compete for the tiny trophy donated by British seed magnate Samuel Ryder some 86 years ago.

It’s America’s turn to host in 2012, with Medinah Country Club near Chicago serving as the venue. Europe will look to extend its run of recent success: Four wins in the past five Ryder Cup Matches, six of the past eight, nine of the past 13. The United States will try to win on home soil for the second straight time, but just the second since 1999, when the Yanks staged the best final-day comeback the Ryder Cup has ever seen.

Looking at the history of the event, the Ryder Cup can almost be split in two: Matches held before 1978, and those held after. From the Ryder Cup’s debut in 1927 through 1977, the United States opponent was made up of players solely from Great Britain (Ireland was added in 1973). Nicklaus, then as now a leading figure in golf, suggested to then-British PGA president, Lord John Darby, that the team should be expanded to include anyone from continental Europe. It was a calculated move, since Nicklaus knew Ballesteros would be capturing the attention of a game that was becoming global, and the swashbuckling Spaniard might be just what the stagnant, lopsided Ryder Cup needed.

The trickle-down effect of Ballesteros’s inclusion brought two things that transformed the Ryder Cup over the next 30 years. It gave the Matches some personality, and created a rivalry, an edge every two years that had been lacking because the results had been so one-sided in favor of the Americans. Ever since Nicklaus persuaded Lord Darby to expand the borders on who was eligible to play, the Ryder Cup has reached lofty status in the golf world, on par with the four major championships, a weeklong event with strong corporate support, media coverage, and worldwide fan interest.

It’s been competitive, too: Starting with the 1979 Ryder Cup, the score reads Europe 8, United States 7, with one tie, in 1989.

Ballesteros captained Europe to a 1-point win in 1997, and earned one of the decisive singles points in 1987, when his team won for the first time in the United States, beating Nicklaus at Muirfield Village, 15-13. Coming on the heels of a 16.5-11.5 win at the Belfry in 1985, it also gave Europe back-to-back wins for the first time.

In addition to Nicklaus’s captaincy in 1987, he also led the Americans to a 14.5-13.5 win in 1983 at PGA National, a sign of how close the competition would usually be played going forward; prior to that, the last time there was a 1-point margin was 1953, when the United States won, 6.5-5.5.

Afterthought would be the best word to describe the Ryder Cup from 1959-83. Over those 13 playings, the Americans never lost, winning 12 times (by an average of more than 7 points), and retaining the cup with a 16-16 tie at Royal Birkdale in 1969.

Nicklaus won 17 of the 28 Ryder Cup matches he played in, but it was a match he didn’t win that he is best known for, and it stands as one of the best scenes in Ryder Cup history. Playing for the first time in 1969, Nicklaus was sent out in the anchor singles match of a close competition against Tony Jacklin (the man who would captain Europe to the 1987 win at Muirfield Village). Nicklaus and Jacklin were locked in a tight duel, with their match deciding the Ryder Cup.

On the final hole, Nicklaus and Jacklin were all-square, and both faced birdie putts. Jacklin’s bid finished 2 feet short, while Nicklaus ran his 5 feet past. Nerves racing, Nicklaus knocked in his putt for par, then reached down and picked up Jacklin’s coin, conceding his opponent’s par putt and ensuring the Ryder Cup would end in a 16-16 tie, the first in its history.

“I don’t think you would have missed that putt,” Nicklaus said to Jacklin. “But in these circumstances, I would never give you the opportunity.”

The United States had won the five previous meetings, and would win the next seven. But the Ryder Cup had its signature moment, one built on competition, compassion, and class. The essence of good sportsmanship.

It’s exactly what Samuel Ryder envisioned in 1926, when he agreed to donate the trophy and help establish the event that would officially begin a year later. Wanting to come up with something similar to its amateur older sibling, the Walker Cup, which was first played in 1922, Ryder proposed a competition between the best professionals in Great Britain against the best from the United States. He didn’t attend the first Ryder Cup—1927 at Worcester Country Club—but when the British team encountered financial travel issues, Ryder stepped in and took on the added responsibility of getting the team overseas. With Ray serving as a playing captain at the age of 50 (he lost both of his matches), Great Britain returned home with a 9.5-2.5 defeat.

The early years were a lot like the recent years have been, the sides splitting the first four Matches, each winning at home. Ryder watched twice, in 1929 and 1933, both in England.

The United States would win 19 of the next 21 Ryder Cups, a 7.5-4.5 loss in 1957 and the tie in 1969 the only exceptions.

But that was then, when the winner was almost a foregone conclusion. Not anymore.

Now, every two years in late September, when the leaves are starting to burst with color and the weather turns a layer or two cooler, 24 of the world’s best professional golfers will put all individual pursuits on hold and join a team that represents something far greater. No prize money on the line, just pride. Playing for each other, their captain, their countries, and the fans ready to spill onto the green in celebration.