When the dust finally settled on the 41st Ryder Cup at Hazeltine Golf Club in October, the US team had scored its first victory in eight years. An emphatic 17-11 win over Europe took the sport to heights of excitement that had rarely been seen before. The avalanche of birdies by veteran Phil Mickelson and the adrenaline-filled charge of the US team’s emotional leader Patrick Reed made all the headlines and, rightly so, as the quality of the golf in Minnesota created an electric atmosphere.
But history tells us that although the result was different than in recent times, there was one thing in particular that was very similar to almost all previous contests – the winners were determined by events off the golf course, by decisions taken months before the first ball was struck.
Ryder Cup matches since the contest’s inception in 1927 have been deeply affected by what happens in the team rooms, the meeting rooms, even the board rooms of the sport of golf and the 2016 battle was no different.
This situation really began to show in the 30 years after World War II, a time when America’s Ryder Cup opponents (it was just Great Britain until 1979) rarely put up a struggle. After the war, the whole of Europe was in tatters, both economically and socially, while the USA forged ahead in every aspect of society including sports. American golfers were the best because the professional game continued in the US throughout the conflict whereas many pros in Britain and Europe rarely swung a club at all, let alone took part in top-level competitions. For decades, European golfers would play catch-up as their US counterparts enjoyed better courses and equipment, improved sponsorship and more prize money from television coverage.
One graphic example came at the Ryder Cup in 1963 when America’s player/captain Arnold Palmer arrived at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta (the modern day venue of the FedEx Cup Tour Championship) in his own plane that he flew himself. One of his counterparts in the British team was Neil Coles of England who supplemented his income during the quiet winter months by working in the family shoe shop. Is it any wonder that the USA’s opponents felt inferior and, therefore, suffered endless defeats?
From the 1940s through to the early 1980s, American players were by far the best in the world and the Ryder Cup was starting to feel like a pleasant end-of-season exhibition match for them. There was little of the prestige that the match holds today because the matches were usually so one-sided. Even the expansion of the British Ryder Cup team into a European one in 1979 initially made little difference as the USA won that match easily and also the next one in 1981. There was now a strong possibility that the future of the Ryder Cup itself was under threat because of the lack of competition between the two teams.
However, there was a shock for the 1983 US squad. This time, the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo fought like tigers and almost pulled off an amazing win on American soil. Only a fabulous pitch to the 18th green in the very last singles match by Lanny Wadkins secured a home victory. Suddenly, the Ryder Cup was a real contest.
The next match in 1985 at The Belfry was Europe’s first win in 28 years and, right then, the modern era of thrilling Ryder Cup battles began. Not only that, but Europe reversed the previous trend and began to win a majority of the matches. Of the first 10 Ryder Cups in the current millennium, the European team won eight, culminating in a big win at Gleneagles in 2014. Europeans often spoke of a strong family-like atmosphere among the players from many countries. The Euros also benefited from a different kind of ownership of the Ryder Cup itself.
Back in 1927 when the first match was played, the two professional golfers associations (PGAs) of America and Britain organised the event and held the rights to it. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the leading pros on each side of the Atlantic formed their own administrative bodies (the PGA Tour in the US and the European Tour over in Britain and Europe). However, the tour pros did not want the rights to the Ryder Cup when these splits happened because the matches consistently lost money. The PGAs – the bodies that now worked exclusively for the many thousands of club pros on both sides of the Atlantic – were left in charge.
Then, in 1990 the GB Ryder Cup team added continental European players and the British PGA made a significant decision – it agreed to partner with the European Tour in all aspects of the matches. Suddenly the players on Team Europe had full ownership of their part in the contests, whileAmerican players continued to be guests of the PGA of America. It might sound like a slight advantage to Europe, but Tiger, Phil and their US Ryder Cup teammates soon felt like guests at their own party. While the Europeans were in total control of their side of the Ryder Cup including choosing the captain and the courses, the thoughts and needs of the US team members were too often kept at arm’s length.
Then, along came another defeat in 2014 at Gleneagles US taskforce and large scale US grumblings led by Mickelson. A taskforce was set up by players and administrators within weeks and, although it was derided by many some experts, it was to prove a stroke of genius.
The US team’s began to change in the build-up to Hazeltine. Firstly, the idea of the team as ‘a family’ was introduced – every player being prepared to sacrifice something for his teammate. Too many American players in the past had thought team golf was all about having the best individual players.
Then, while the financial control remained with the PGA of America, what Phil Mickelson called “the emotional control” was grabbed by the players. They selected their own captain, they had a real voice in the pairings, they chose how the course would be set up. The most obvious example of the change was that at Gleneagles, Tom Watson was an old-style team leader who made decisions himself; in 2106 Davis Love II was a modern-day, collaborative captain.
In top-level professional sport, the difference between winning and losing is often a tiny percentage; it’s not always talent or physical ability, but of mental strength and fortitude. Davis Love’s tireless work before a golf ball was hit at Hazeltine brought him redemption for his loss as captain at Medinah in 2012. Everyone in a Team USA hat believed that what had happened in the meeting rooms beforehand had placed them – mind and body – in the best possible position to win. The 12 US players with their five captains in support were a team in the truest sense; men with unique individual personalities like Mickelson and even Tiger Woods who was a vice captain sang from the same songsheet for the first time. The US had simply copied the art of real togetherness, something that the Europeans had been perfecting successfully for much of the previous 30 years, and it brought them victory.
Luckily for every golf fan, the US also avoided a record fourth-straight Ryder Cup defeat and therefore provided the perfect launch pad for the next match in Paris in 2018. And the only thing that is guaranteed about the match in France is that victory will once again likely be decided by events off the golf course. You heard it here first.
The theme of this feature is taken from Ross Biddiscombe’s acclaimed book Ryder Cup Revealed: Tales of the Unexpected that is available in hardback and eBook formats on Amazon.com