Ryder Cup: tea party to a street fight 'Old-boy' event now 'awesome' tourney

September 23, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SOTOGRANDE, Spain -- It is like a lot of septuagenarians these days. Having survived a prolonged mid-life crisis that threatened its future, it has been rejuvenated. Having been energized by a new-found rivalry between its participants, it has been rediscovered.

When the 32nd Ryder Cup begins Friday at Valderrama Golf Club, its luster will be more vibrant than ever before. Not even the Cup debut of the game's biggest star, Tiger Woods, can add much to what it has become.

"It's a pretty awesome golf tournament," U.S. captain Tom Kite said earlier this year of the competition that was held for the first time 70 years ago. "The way it has grown, now it's the tournament that creates the most interest of any tournament in the world. It hasn't been that long ago that it was kind of a little get-together."

It began to change in 1979, when the rest of Europe was added to a team that for the first 52 years consisted of players from Great Britain. It changed some more in 1985, when Spain's Seve Ballesteros helped bring about the first U.S. defeat in 28 years.

"The Ryder Cup had gotten so one-sided that we were in danger of losing the competition," said Raymond Floyd, who played on eight Ryder Cup teams and was the non-playing captain in 1989. "The big kick came in 1985. From that point forward, the Ryder Cup became the event in golf every two years."

This year's competition marks the first time that the Cup will be played outside the United States or Great Britain, further widening its stage. It doesn't hurt that the European team will be captained by Ballesteros, or that young Americans such as Woods and Justin Leonard will be trying to help the U.S. team recapture the Cup it lost at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., in 1995.

"The rest of the world is pulling for the Europeans," said Floyd. "We're out here alone."

There was a time, not so long ago, that nobody cared much about this biennial event. After the teams split the first four Ryder Cups, the Americans won the next seven and lost only once -- at Lindrick in Yorkshire, England, in 1957 -- through 1983. During one stretch of six years in the mid-1960s, the average margin of victory for the 32-match competition was a whopping 12 points.

"It was not much more than a member-guest tournament at a lot of clubs," said Kite, who played on the first of six straight Ryder Cup teams in 1979.

Though there had been some early acrimony -- in particular between U.S. captain Walter Hagen and his British counterparts during the first two competitions -- the Ryder Cup had always been considered a friendly, albeit one-sided, event that played to sportsmanship, not gamesmanship.

Perhaps the gesture that summed up the first 50 years of Ryder Cup competition came in 1969 at Britain's Royal Birkdale. In what would be the closest competition in the event's history, with 17 of the matches coming down to the final hole, Jack Nicklaus conceded a two-foot putt to Tony Jacklin to halve his match shortly after Billy Casper was forced to make a four-footer to halve his.

It produced a 16-16 tie, the first in the event's history. The United States, based on its status as defending champion, kept the Cup.

"Of the 12 guys on our team, nine or 10 thought Jack had made the right move," recalled Floyd, who, like Nicklaus, was making his Ryder Cup debut that year. "I think he would have done that regardless. That was the spirit of the competition."

But as the rivalry deepened -- the 1983 Ryder Cup at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., produced a one-point U.S. victory, its narrowest in 30 years -- the tone of the matches changed. Fans became more nationalistic, cheering their teams' players and heckling the opposition.

After the Americans lost at home for the first time, in 1987 at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, the Europeans formed an impromptu conga line around the 18th green to celebrate their victory over a Nicklaus-captained team. They retained the Cup after a 14-14 tie at The Belfry in Britain in 1989 that was marked by some verbal sparring between Paul Azinger and Ballesteros.

The competitiveness reached its zenith in 1991, in "The War at the Shore."

Some American players showed up for a pre-match news conference in Kiawah Island, S.C., wearing battle fatigues. It turned out to be a war of attrition, and what is remembered are the two players who choked the most.

The U.S. team's Mark Calcavecchia would have been the goat for blowing a huge lead against Colin Montgomerie had it not been for the European side's Bernhard Langer missing a six-foot putt on the final hole. The United States won, 14 1/2 -13 1/2 .

"It's not supposed to be a war," said Nicklaus. "I don't know if the rivalry has taken the joy out of it. I hope it hasn't.

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