The 41st Ryder Cup matches are this weekend. The biennial team match play event between the 12 best golfers from the United States and the 12 best from Europe is a spectacle of pride and pageantry, as players who are used to playing only for individual glory will face the tremendous pressure of playing for team and country.
While the Ryder Cup was an afterthought for its first 50 years, as the U.S. regularly dominated a team from Great Britain & Ireland, once continental Europe was included in 1979, the event exploded into the tremendous event it is today.
Here are five (okay, really six) of the matches from over the years that have made the Ryder Cup into golf’s greatest drama.
5. 2008: United States 16.5, Europe 11.5, Valhalla Golf Club, Louisville, Ky.
This isn’t the only American Ryder Cup victory of my lifetime, but the only one I remember. U.S. captain Paul Azinger split his team into three “personality pods” of four players each, pairing players with similar personalities instead of similar golf games. The U.S. team, featuring six Ryder Cup rookies, responded in a big way, leading after every session and winning the matches with some clutch shotmaking throughout. Azinger wrote a book on the pods strategy, called Cracking the Code, while Boo Weekley famously used his driver as a stick-horse (see below at 2:18).
4. 1969: United States 16, Great Britain 16, Royal Birkdale Golf Club, Southport, England
Great Britain (it wouldn’t become Great Britain & Ireland until 1973, and Europe until 1979) had only won the Cup once since World War II (in 1957), but jumped out to an early lead on the Americans, and the teams entered Sunday Singles tied. The score remained tied at 15.5 with the final match tied on the 18th, when American Jack Nicklaus, after making his own par putt, conceded the missable three-foot par putt of Brit Tony Jacklin, resulting in a 16-16 tie. By Ryder Cup rules, the U.S. “retained the Cup” due to the tie, but Nicklaus’s move assured Great Britain would not lose outright for the sixth straight matches, and is known as one of the great displays of sportsmanship in history. The gesture is known as “The Concession,” and Nicklaus and Jacklin would go on to co-design a course in Sarasota, Fla. called The Concession in homage to this Ryder Cup. The pair also went against each other as Ryder Cup captains in 1983 and 1987.
3. 1985: Europe 16.5, United States 11.5, The Belfry, Sutton Coldfield, England
Great Britain/Europe’s fortunes had not improved since those 1969 matches, as they had still not won since 1957 entering the 1985 matches. After the U.S. took the opening session 3-1, Europe won each remaining session, clinching the Cup on Sunday with five matches still on the course. After Scotland’s Sam Torrance made the Cup-clinching putt, he raised his arms to the sky and tears came down his face, as Europe had won their first Ryder Cup in 28 years. These matches were not the closest or most dramatic in Ryder Cup history, but are among the most significant, as the Ryder Cup was reborn on September 15, 1985.
2. 1991: United States 14.5, Europe 13.5, The Ocean Course, Kiawah Island, S.C.
This controversial Ryder Cup, played at course architect Pete Dye’s seaside gem near Charleston, is known as “The War By The Shore.” Patriotism of the American fans was at a crescendo after the Persian Gulf War, and the Ryder Cup was just coming into its own, making this the perfect storm. Add to that the ongoing Ryder Cup rivalry between Azinger and Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, which reached its peak at Kiawah, and the matches were the most boisterous in Ryder Cup history. The back-and-forth affair came down to the final putt, a six-footer for German Bernhard Langer. Had he made the putt, the teams would have tied at 14, and Europe would have retained the Cup, but Langer missed, giving the U.S. its first Ryder Cup win since 1983 by the narrowest of margins. Unfortunately, many remember Langer more for this missed putt than for his two Masters victories.
1 (tie). 1999: United States 14.5, Europe 13.5, The Country Club, Brookline, Mass.
2012: Europe 14.5, United States 13.5, Medinah Golf Club, Chicago, Ill.
It wouldn’t be right to rank one of these memorable Ryder Cups over the other, with both having an unimaginable outcome. American fans would likely choose 1999 as the best, while Europeans would take 2012, but both featured remarkable comebacks from an identical deficit in Sunday Singles.
In 1999 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the Americans faced a 10-6 deficit entering Sunday Singles, something that had never been overcome to win a Ryder Cup. But after Ben Crenshaw famously told the media on Saturday night “I’ve got a good feeling about this,” the U.S. won the first six singles matches to take the lead, then stood a half-point away from clinching the matches as Justin Leonard played the 17th hole against Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal, leading to the most controversial moment in Ryder Cup history. Leonard holed a 40-foot birdie putt, forcing Olazabal to make his 25-footer to keep European hopes alive, but before Olazabal could putt, the U.S. team (and many wives/girlfriends, caddies, and assistant captains) stormed the green in celebration. The over-the-top celebration was the black cloud hanging over what was, at the time, the greatest comeback in golf history, and is known as the “Miracle at Brookline.”
But while the 1999 American team came from 10-6 down to win on home soil, the 2012 European team faced the same deficit at Medinah Country Club in Chicago entering the final day, but as “visitors” on American soil. The U.S. actually led 10-4 midway through the fourball matches on Saturday afternoon, before Europe pulled to within 10-6. Similar to the U.S. comeback at Brookline, the Europeans won the first five matches in Sunday Singles. Three pivotal matches turned in the final two holes, with Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, and Martin Kaymer each winning the last two holes (against Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, and Steve Stricker, respectively) to turn 1-up American leads into 1-up European victories, with Kaymer’s match clinching the Cup for the Europeans. Ironically, Olazabal, who on the losing end of the clinching match in 1999, was the European captain in 2012, while the Americans were led by Davis Love III, who returns as captain this year. After the matches, the European media dubbed the comeback the “Miracle at Medinah,” while some American media opted for the “Meltdown at Medinah.”
Ryder Cup TV Schedule
Friday: 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Golf Channel)
Saturday: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (NBC)
Sunday: 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. (NBC)
Ryder Cup Matches
1927: United States 9.5, Great Britain 2.5
1929: Great Britain 7, United States 5
1931: United States 9, Great Britain 3
1933: Great Britain 6.5, United States 5.5
1935: United States 9, Great Britain 3
1937: United States 8, Great Britain 4
1939-45: no matches due to World War II
1947: United States 11, Great Britain 1
1949: United States 7, Great Britain 5
1951: United States 9.5, Great Britain 2.5
1953: United States 6.5, Great Britain 5.5
1955: United States 8, Great Britain 4
1957: Great Britain 7.5, United States 4.5
1959: United States 8.5, Great Britain 3.5
1961: United States 14.5, Great Britain 9.5
1963: United States 23, Great Britain 9
1965: United States 19.5, Great Britain 12.5
1967: United States 23.5, Great Britain 8.5
1969: United States 16, Great Britain 16 (U.S. retains the Cup)
1971: United States 18.5, Great Britain 13.5
1973: United States 19, Great Britain & Ireland 13
1975: United States 21, Great Britain & Ireland 11
1977: United States 12.5, Great Britain & Ireland 7.5
1979: United States 17, Europe 11
1981: United States 18.5, Europe 9.5
1983: United States 14.5, Europe 13.5
1985: Europe 16.5, United States 11.5
1987: Europe 15, United States 13
1989: Europe 14, United States 14 (Europe retains the Cup)
1991: United States 14.5, Europe 13.5
1993: United States 15, Europe 13
1995: Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
1997: Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
1999: United States 14.5, Europe 13.5
2001: matches postponed due to 9/11 attacks
2002: Europe 15.5, United States 12.5
2004: Europe 18.5, United States 9.5
2006: Europe 18.5, United States 9.5
2008: United States 16.5, Europe 11.5
2010: Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
2012: Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
2014: Europe 16.5, United States 11.5