MEDINAH, Ill. — The Ryder Cup is so hotly contested that even its humble beginning is the subject of debate.
One side has the president of Inverness Club in Ohio as the first to raise the idea of a match between professionals from America and Britain. Most historians lean toward Samuel Ryder, the wealthy English seed merchant, as helping to organize matches at Wentworth in 1926 at a time when Americans were coming over for British Open qualifying. As the story goes, Ryder promised a cup to the winner — even though a cup was never awarded.
The Ryder Cup began a year later in 1927, and the fact it was named after the Englishman would have to give his side a 1-up lead.
There truly was a home field advantage, for it wasn't until the sixth Ryder Cup in 1937 that the visiting team won. World War II came along, and it took Britain years to recover. But ever since continental Europe was added in 1979, the Ryder Cup mostly has lived up to its growing reputation as the biggest spectacle in golf.
No other list in golf is more subjective, but here's one take on the five most relevant Ryder Cup matches in history:
5. EUROPEAN STATEMENT, AMERICAN WIN (1983)
It was Jack Nicklaus who in 1977 made the recommendation that all of continental Europe be included in the Ryder Cup, and in his first year as captain, it almost came back to haunt him. The opposing captain was Tony Jacklin, and just like the time Nicklaus and Jacklin first squared off as players in the Ryder Cup, the matches were tied at 8 going into the Sunday singles.
The first singles match produced what many consider to be the greatest shot ever hit in the Ryder Cup. Seve Ballesteros played his first two shots so poorly on the par-5 18th at PGA National that he was in the bunker, near a lip, and still had 245 yards to clear the water. Amazingly, he pulled out a 3-wood and hit it so flush that it narrowly cleared the lip and came just short of the green, allowing him to halve the match. "The greatest shot I ever saw," Nicklaus said, high praise coming from him.
The matches remained at 13 with two matches on the course. Jose Maria Canizares had a 1-up lead on Lanny Wadkins playing the 18th, while Tom Watson was 1 up on Bernard Gallacher on the 17th. Wadkins hit a wedge to a foot for birdie to win the hole and earn a half-point, such a quality shot that Nicklaus kissed the divot. Watson only had to halve the 17th to assure the Americans keeping the cup, but Gallacher made double bogey and Watson won outright.
The United States won, 14½-13½, but it was a sign that Europe finally was on equal footing with the Americans. Two years later, Europe would win for the first time in 28 years.
4. THE CONCESSION (1969)
The United States owned the Ryder Cup in this era, winning the previous five matches by at least five points, so not much was expected of Great Britain & Ireland in 1969 at Royal Birkdale. It turned out to be as close as a match could be — and the tie resulted in a putt that was conceded.
The matches were tied at 8 going into the final day, which at the time included two sessions of eight singles matches. It came down to the last two matches of the day.
Brian Huggett was lining up a 4-foot putt to halve his match against Billy Casper when he heard an enormous roar from the 17th, and assumed Jacklin had closed out his match against Nicklaus. That would mean his putt was for the win, and under enormous pressure, he made it.
Alas, Jacklin had made a 40-foot eagle to square the match, and he and Nicklaus came down the 18th with the Ryder Cup hanging in the balance. Nicklaus faced a 5-footer, while Jacklin was just inside 3 feet. In his first Ryder Cup, Nicklaus made it for 4. Jacklin now had to make his to halve the match.
Nicklaus instead picked up his coin and conceded the match, resulting in the first tie in Ryder Cup history — 16-16. The Americans still retained the cup, although captain Sam Snead was miffed that Nicklaus didn't make him putt.
"I don't think you would have missed that putt, but under these circumstances I would never give you the opportunity," Nicklaus told him.
It is considered the greatest act of sportsmanship in the history of the Ryder Cup.
3. THE GREAT AMERICAN COMEBACK (1999)
The 1999 Ryder Cup began with a flap over whether the American players should have any stake in the millions of dollars the PGA of America made off the event. None of them looked to be worth a dime against Europe at The Country Club, where 19-year-old Sergio Garcia made a dynamic debut and every move made by U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw turned out to be the wrong one.
European captain Mark James didn't bother playing three players until Sunday singles, and seven of his players never sat out. It appeared to work just fine with a 10-6 lead after two days. Before heading off to the team room, Crenshaw wagged his finger at the camera and said, "I'm a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this." And with that, he walked out of the room.
Crenshaw loaded the front of his singles lineup, and the Americans won the first seven matches, none of them even reaching the 18th hole. Players whipped up the crowd into a flag-waving frenzy, and the emotions spilled over the top at the end. Justin Leonard rallied from 4 down against Jose Maria Olazabal, and they were all square playing the 17th hole. A halve would be enough to complete the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history.
Leonard's 45-foot birdie putt rammed into the back of the cup, and his teammates (and wives) stormed across the green — even though Olazabal still had a 25-foot birdie putt to halve the hole. When order was restored, Olazabal missed and the Americans had won the cup.
2. BEAR'S TRAP — CAPTAIN JACK LOSING IN HIS OWN LAIR (1987)
Europe had finally ended a losing streak that had lasted 13 matches dating to 1957 when it won at The Belfry in 1985. But it still had never won the Ryder Cup on American soil, and this looked to be a daunting task. The European team was in the midst of internal turmoil, and it faced a U.S. squad with Jack Nicklaus as the captain, playing on the Muirfield Village course that Nicklaus built.
And it was no contest.
The European players and administrators cleared the air over drinks on the eve of the Ryder Cup, and they took it to the Americans like never before, particularly in the clutch. Fourteen of the 28 matches went to the final hole. Europe won seven of them and halved four others.
A newcomer to the European team was a young Spaniard named Jose Maria Olazabal, and thus began the fabled "Spanish Armada." They won three of their four matches as Europe built a 10½-5½ lead, and the Americans never caught up. The height of their frustration came from "Gentle" Ben Crenshaw, who snapped his putter after six holes of his singles match with Eamonn Darcy and had to use a 1-iron or the blade of his sand wedge to putt the rest of the round. Darcy won, 1 up.
The lasting image is the European team celebrating from the balcony of the clubhouse that Nicklaus had built. It was an overthrow in so many ways.
1. THE WAR ON THE SHORE (1991)
This was the first Ryder Cup when one could argue the Americans really cared.
They had lost the Ryder Cup before, but not three successive times. The bad memory of these matches at Kiawah Island is that they lost the spirit under which they were meant to be played, starting with the moniker this Ryder Cup was given — "The War on the Shore." That was bound to happen. But this brought so many elements of what makes the Ryder Cup special. Great shots early on as both teams entered the final day tied at 8, and some shocking collapses coming down the stretch.
It came down to the final hole of the final match between Bernhard Langer and Hale Irwin. The Americans led 14-13. The match was all square. If Langer won the hole, the Ryder Cup would end in a tie and Europe would keep the cup. Irwin's approach hit a spectator, he chipped weakly and made bogey. Langer's 45-foot birdie attempt went some 6 feet past the hole. He settled in over his par putt, and leaned his head back and yelled when it narrowly missed.
It was gut-wrenching on both sides. It also was the first full network coverage in America. Since then, the Ryder Cup has become one of the toughest tickets in sport.