Greatest Ever American Team?
Nicklaus, Watson, Trevino, Miller, Irwin... the 1981 Ryder Cup Team
(An extract from the club's centenary history - Heather & Heaven)
The Professional Golfers' Association planned to hold the 1981 Ryder Cup match on their own doorstep - on the Brabazon course at their new headquarters at the Belfry Hotel near Birmingham. That set the cat among the pigeons. Critics complained that the course, four years young, would not be ready; players joined in the clamour; Brian Barnes described the Brabazon as not much more than a ploughed field and was fined for his cheek. The PGA, though, saw the light.
So where should the match be played? A powerful influence in answering that question was Lord Aldington, chairman of the sponsoring company, Sun Alliance. He was an ardent admirer of Walton Heath - wouldn't you be if you had won the Parliamentary Handicap there four times and incidentally under four different names or titles! Two years before the event, an invitation to stage the match arrived at Deans Lane. The committee accepted ‘in principle.' ‘We then had to sit on the news for six months while the PGA extricated themselves from their commitment,' John Woods, the 1979 captain, recalls.
Eventually the match was accepted unconditionally for September 18-20, 1981. The facility fee, secretary McCrea recalls, was a mere £6,000, plus deals embracing badges for members and a percentage of revenue from tickets sold via the club. Walton Heath, in return, agreed to pay the PGA a similar sum of £6,000 for the exclusive right to sell golf merchandise around the course, the profits to be shared as agreed with professional Ken Macpherson.
The choice of Walton Heath was generally welcomed. ‘A course which this country can be proud to introduce to an American team,' commented Peter Ryde in The Times. There was even a suggestion that small, unreceptive greens allied with fast-running heathland might negate the Americans' formidable iron play.
The composite course, measuring 7,067 yards, was essentially the same as for the first two European Opens, the one hole toughened being the Old's 15th. The match, with the eyes of the golfing world on it, was a major challenge to the club and not least to greenkeeper Osgood, less than two years in the job.
Britain and Ireland had not once won the Ryder Cup in the last 20 years and, pragmatically disregarding Samuel Ryder's original decrees, both sides had agreed to move the goalposts - even if that meant mixing metaphors. America's opponents now were not Britain and Ireland but Europe. The only such match so far had been in West Virginia and the States had still won, by 17-11.
The 1981 US Ryder Cup Team
To state the obvious, Europe's selectors - non-playing captain John Jacobs, Neil Coles and team-member Bernhard Langer - needed their strongest team. Faced with picking the last two players to supplement the top ten on the European money list, they proceeded to drop Tony Jacklin and Seve Ballesteros - the former presumably because of form and his unease when playing partnership golf, the latter following a wrangle over appearance money for tournaments and his absence from European events for much of the season.
The team lists made a vivid contrast. Europe had Bernhard Langer, Peter Oosterhuis, Mark James, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Bernard Gallacher, Eamonn Darcy, Des Smyth, Howard Clark, Sam Torrance and two Spaniards, Jose-Maria Canizares and Manuel Pinero. None of them had ever won a major and Faldo and Lyle were still in their early twenties, not the champions they would become.
The United States, with Dave Marr as non-playing captain, fielded Tom Watson (current Masters champion), Bill Rogers (Open champion), Larry Nelson (USPGA champion), Jack Nicklaus, Ray Floyd, Hale Irwin, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Jerry Pate, Ben Crenshaw, Bruce Lietzke and Tom Kite. Only the last three had not won a major (and Crenshaw and Kite would subsequently do so) and the others had 36 between them. Surely no stronger side had ever been chosen?
European followers found crumbs of comfort in the urbane Mr. Marr's pre-match summing-up, which was good public relations stuff and may even have been sincere: ‘We're gonna be in a dog fight for three days - and it's not the size of the dog that counts, it's the size of the fight in the dog!'
Osgood's work could scarcely have been worse hindered. At times before or during the three days vandals attacked one of the greens, cloudbursts soaked the course and submerged greens and an estimated 6,000 gallons of water were pumped out of the tented village. Yet everything was completed on schedule.
The first day, attended by 10,500 spectators, was hit by showers and thunderstorms, but the morning foursomes began well for Europe. As the first of the four matches approached the turn the home team were up in three and down in one. By the end, though, Europe and the States were tied with two points each.
Now for the afternoon fourballs. Jacobs had seen his strongest pair, Oosterhuis and Faldo, take a grip on Watson and Nicklaus in the morning, then lose it. The Americans, two down after four holes, had won five in a row from the seventh, including three birdies. Jacobs promptly left out both British players.
In giving a chance to those omitted from the foursomes, he made another controversial decision, pairing an apparently nervous Canizares with Smyth against Rogers and Lietzke. This proved inspired matchmaking, for the Spaniard and the Irishman won by six and five. It had been a bad day for the two Americans but an outstanding one for Smyth, who for the second time had played superbly to win.
Europe's other double winners on the day were Lyle and James, who beat Pate and Crenshaw three and two. Four times Lyle holed from more than 20 feet, he and his partner had five birdies in seven holes from the seventh and they finished their 16 holes with a better-ball score of eight under par.
This leaves two matches: Torrance and Clark against Kite and Miller and Gallacher and Darcy playing Irwin and Floyd.
Torrance and Clark, clambering back from two down to all-square, had a chance of victory at the last hole where Torrance had a 10-footer for a birdie. The ball hit the cup and stayed out, so their contest, wherein both pairs had better-ball scores of 65, was tied. Europe, then, were assured of a lead at the end of the day.
Gallacher and Darcy also had been two down - in their case with seven to play - but by the time they came to the 15th the match was level, Gallacher having holed a big putt for an eagle at the previous hole. That the entire American team sensed that they were indeed in a dog fight was evident when they appeared en masse through the rain to watch and encourage. They were rewarded by seeing Floyd, strong man of his partnership with Irwin, score birdies at both the 16th and 17th (making six for him in all) and gain the States their only win of the afternoon.
So after the first day the Europeans led 4½-3½. That evening Marr acted the all-American boy and, presumably straight-faced, stirred his golfing millionaires with allusions to their country's pioneers and the need now to circle the covered wagons and prepare for the next attack! As for Europe, huge satisfaction, high hopes!
Not for long! The shifts in the weather were matched by the spirits of Europe. After more heavy rain overnight the second day dawned clear and sunny, all blue skies and optimism. Later the clouds darkened, the rains returned and the Europeans struggled in their own gloom, submerged by a storming tour de force. Peter Dobereiner, The Observer golf columnist, turned science correspondent:
Just as radio-active molecules popping off at random produce precise and predictable patterns of radiation, so team golf's individual uncertainties add up to a certainty. In the Ryder Cup there is no greater certainty than the American backlash. If you rough them up on day one, then they will hit back hard.
The backlash hurt and was ultimately fatal. The States won the morning fourballs three to one, only Langer and Pinero winning for Europe and the US winning pairs all having better-ball scores of nine under par Ah, well, that put the visitors in front by only 6½ - 5½, so there was still hope.
Oh, this eternal optimism! In the afternoon foursomes the Americans whitewashed us. That made their tally seven points against one on this damp and dismal day and left the pundits to search retrospectively for the crucial turning-point.
Had it been yesterday, when Floyd fought to win his fourball under the anxious eyes of his mates? There was a feeling that this was the stimulus that unleashed the visitors' team effort.
Had it been before play today, when Trevino beseeched Marr to let him partner Pate in the morning fourballs? ‘Jerry's a fantastic player but a poor manager of a course. I'll do the thinking for him, I'll club him, I'll read the putts. It will be his body and my mind.' So spoke the Texan with his own brand of modesty.
Nick Faldo, yet to have won a major in 1981
Trevino's proposal had been accepted. On the first hole of the leading match Pate fired a symbolic warning to Europe with a four-iron to within inches of the hole. He scored seven birdies and he and Trevino crushed Torrance and Faldo by seven and five.
Had it been two dramatic ripostes in the next fourball? Thanks to a wonderful one-iron approach to within four inches by Lyle at the 475-yard 16th, he and James were all-square with Nelson and Kite, and when Sandy hit a six-iron again to within inches at the short 17th it surely meant the lead... whereupon Nelson coolly holed a 15-footer to halve. At the final hole it was deja-vu: another birdie putt from Nelson.
After a tremendous match, in which the two Europeans had struck the ball magnificently and neither pair had ever been more than one ahead, Nelson had negated Lyle's tremendous shots and turned possible defeat into victory. For the first time the visitors led in the overall match, an advantage increased when Nicklaus and Watson defeated Canizares and Smyth.
Had it been Marr's decision, with the players' compliance, to choose Nicklaus and Trevino, both 41, for the afternoon foursomes - two matches for them in the day when the intention had been one?
The Trevino/Pate and Nicklaus/Watson pairings had proceeded to win again - the former over Oosterhuis and Torrance by two and one in the closest contest of the afternoon and the latter by three and two against Langer and Pinero.
Actually, all this searching for the most significant flashpoint was academic. The overall truth was that when it came to crucial moments on greens rendered easy-paced by the rains it was the Americans who holed the putts. In the afternoon they had ‘putted out of this world,' said Jacobs, and he was right. If you wanted to see nothing the place to be was the 18th green.
The Europeans, like the former British-and-Irish teams, were beginning to assume the role of gallant losers. ‘My boys played their hearts out in terrible conditions,' stressed Jacobs - and again he was right.
The score after two days, then, was Europe 5½, United States 10½. Europe would need nine of the morrow's 12 singles to win, while their opponents required only four. The last rites did not take long. On a course again soaked, the first five matches sufficed.
In the first, Trevino beat Torrance five and three in two hours and ten minutes. In the second, Kite scored 10 birdies in 16 holes to defeat Lyle, who was all-square after 11, six under par to Kite's 10 when beaten and went down with his reputation honourably intact, even enhanced. Gallacher halved with Rogers but Smyth went down six and four to Crenshaw and the coup de grace was dealt by Larry Nelson when he beat James on the last green to register his ninth victory in nine matches in his two Ryder Cup appearances.
Any European victories, admirable though they were, were achieved after America's win had been ensured. Nicklaus, beating Darcy in the final contest, joined Trevino and Nelson in winning all his four matches - a fitting farewell to his Ryder Cup playing career.
The victorious US Team
The final score was Europe 9½, United States 18½ - the widest-ever margin of any Ryder Cup match in Britain and worse than Europe's first combined effort two years previously in West Virginia.
In retrospect the Walton Heath match may perhaps be seen as almost the last of the traditional ‘goodwill' meetings as envisaged by Sam Ryder and from a vintage that may have produced partisanship among the 27,000 spectators but not the overt chauvinism and consequent recriminations that would sometimes endanger the event when the battles grew close. Two years later, in 1983, the Europeans would get within a point of the Americans in Florida; two years after that they would win; the knife-edge contests of modern times then began.
Financially, the bad weather having kept down the crowds, the match was something of a disaster for the PGA and Aldington's Sun Alliance did not renew its sponsorship. But none of this was Walton Heath's fault.
The course licked its wounds and the committee judged the club's efforts highly successful. Douglas Thomson, captain that year, felt that the course had been brought to peak condition. The Artisans had been a huge help to McCrea, the American players had been full of praise and Tom Scott, of Golf Illustrated, added his own accolade:
The organisation was magnificent - by far the best ever as far as Britain is concerned. For this the PGA take much credit, as do the Walton Heath secretary Bill McCrea, the professional Ken Macpherson and the entire committee.
That third week of September 1981 provided field days for tradition - a quality the players found amid the heath and heather, in Busson's workshop and in the clubhouse. ‘A wonderful place and a great course,' said Ben Crenshaw, high priest of history among America's professionals, ‘You could feel the presence of James Braid all week.'