As they say in Britain, the moment the penny dropped among those involved in Europe‘s quest to wrest back control of the Ryder Cup from the Americans, and to start taking the bi-annual event seriously, came roughly 30 years ago. England’s double-major winner Tony Jacklin had been asked to captain the European team and was distinctly unimpressed with the set-up. Never mind the side’s woeful performance while he represented them as a player – six defeats and one tie. It must have been equally dispiriting that, according to Gavin Newsham’s excellent account, Two Tribes, The Epic Story of the Ryder Cup, the Europeans had sunk so low as to effectively beg, steal or borrow certain items.
During Jacklin’s 1975 singles match against Ray Floyd, for example, the soles of his shoes fell off on the putting green. “There was no self-esteem,” Jacklin remembers in the book. “And then these Americans would turn up in cashmere sweaters with leather golf bags. They did everything first class and we were two-nil down before we had hit a shot, just on the basis of how we were made to feel.”
How times have changed. Jacklin only took on the captaincy when the powers that be acceded to his wishes of fresh equipment and clothing (including shoes). And his “first-class” remarks were clearly literal as he insisted on all involved – including the support staff, caddies and players’ wives – taking the Concorde to the 1983 Ryder Cup in Florida. While the resulting loss was all too familiar, a new belief began to build through the team; two years later at the Belfry, Europe won back the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1957 (Team Europe came together in 1979. Great Britain and Ireland played against the U.S. between 1973-1977. From the Ryder Cup’s inception in 1927 until the 1970s, Great Britain played alone).
Since winning in ’85, Europe has lost the Ryder Cup just four times, though the team barely eked out a victory two years ago in Wales (Final score: 14.5-13.5). The 39th contest in Medinha, Illinois, which tees off Friday, should go down to the wire yet again. Team USA is deep. The world top 10 features five Americans to four Brits — though the top player is Ulsterman Rory McIlroy. Talents like Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler and Nick Watney missed out on the wild card places chosen by captain Davis Love III. Ominously for the European visitors, only Jim Furyk is without a trophy this year.
But Europe surely harnesses a greater team spirit and togetherness, which often raises its game to unexpected lengths. Ian Poulter, for example, in his three Ryder Cups to date (he’s one of captain José María Olazábal’s wild-card picks), has not only has won every singles match, but ended them before the 17th hole.
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Contrast Poulter with Tiger Woods. His career Ryder Cup record is a distinctly average 13 wins, 14 losses and two halves from his six events to date, which can hardly be deemed a surprise when you factor in the individual nature of golf; that approach, rather than the team setting, clearly appeals to the 14-time major winner (in fairness, Phil Mickleson has only taken 14 points from 34 matches, including just two victories from his last 14 fourball or foursome matches).
But Woods remains a draw, especially with the tantalizing prospect of him facing off against a serious contender to his crown, 23-year-old McIlroy, who has already won two majors in his fledgling career. Former Australian player Greg Norman stirred up the rivalry recently, claiming that Tiger is intimidated by the Ulsterman (McLlroy said he found the suggestion laughable). But Olazábal hasn’t exactly put the issue to bed by stating that he feels his player “is, at this moment, very close to how good Tiger was in that time between 1999 and 2002.” In America, television executives love nothing more than promoting the Tiger vs. Rory show; they’re often paired together in the opening rounds. But it would be a surprise if captains Love and Olazábal gave the golf world the singles match it wants, with previous European captain Colin Montgomerie not wanting McIlroy remotely close to Tiger. “I would leave Woods well alone and don’t go anywhere near him, especially in America and playing now to a certain degree an awful lot better than he has been,” said Monty. “I would want Rory to be playing someone else in the singles if you don’t mind.”
The contest is too difficult to predict for another ex-European captain, Sir Nick Faldo, who has gone on record in not ruling out the event’s first tie since 1989 in an interview with Reuters. “Half-jokingly I said at the beginning of the season that we haven’t had a tie for quite a while but suddenly now that notion doesn’t seem so far off. Maybe a tie could be the result this year.”
What could lift the Americans? The famously – some might claim infamously – partisan and passionate home crowd has been known to rattle the visitors in the past, with Brookline in 1999 often cited as being a Ryder Cup where the crowd crossed the line (Montgomerie received so much abuse that year, his father walked off the course in disgust). Then there could be the local hero factor, in the form of one of Chicago’s favorite sons, Michael Jordan, who is one of Love’s assistants. Jordan’s association with the Ryder Cup goes back to Valderrama, Spain, in 1997 where then USA captain, Tom Kite, spent time with the basketball legend. If the current crop is seen celebrating with cigars come the end of play Sunday, then you’ll know that his motivating has paid off (that said, if Jordan does for the Americans what he’s managed for the Charlotte Bobcats, the Europeans would retain the trophy with a day to spare).
As for the Europeans, the late Seve Ballesteros will loom large, as this is the first Ryder Cup taking place since the former Spanish great lost his battle against cancer in 2011. His friends will be hoping to keep control of the trophy in his honor; the Spaniard’s image is already adorning every player’s golf bag. Plans are also set for the European players to don Seve’s famous navy and blue colors during the singles on Sunday (the team won’t be needing to borrow the outfits, unlike their predecessors of old).
Nobody loved the Ryder Cup as much as Seve, the former player and captain who won 20 of his 37 matches between 1979 and 1995. Olazábal can still recall the advice his mentor gave to him when he made his playing debut in 1987. “He [Seve] made clear to Tony Jacklin that he wanted to play with me,” Olazábal said. “He looked at me, and said, ‘José María, you play your game, I’ll take care of the rest.’ And he did.”
Olazábal, and all of Europe, hopes his players do the same.