The biennial Ryder Cup sees 24 of the best professional golfers from Europe and the United States go head-to-head in a series of match play competitions. Heralded as one of the greatest sporting events in the world, it is a spectacle that transcends the sport of golf, yet its spirit remains rooted in the original seeds sowed almost 90 years ago.
Those seeds were in fact more literal than you might think. Samuel Ryder, a successful English seed merchant who had made his fortune selling penny seed packets, had taken up the game of golf at the spritely age of 50. Ryder fell in love with the game and paid professional golfer Abe Mitchell between £500-1,000 a year to be his personal coach.
In 1923 Ryder began sponsoring events, to not only support the professional golfers who were badly paid at the time, but also to promote his seed company, The Heath and Heather Seed Company.
Prior to this in 1921 the first unofficial match between professionals from Great Britain and the United States was played at Gleneagles in Scotland. Considered a warm up tournament before the Open Championship at St Andrews, it was the first time 12 golfers from either side of the Atlantic had gone head-to-head. The Brits claimed a 9-3 victory.
In 1926, the second unofficial game was played at Wentworth, Surrey. Enthralled by what he saw, Ryder wished to make the event a regular ‘official’ occurrence. He formalised a deed of trust with the British PGA and donated a £250 small 17” high gold cup designed by Mappin & Webb and adorned with a golfing figure on top. That figure reflects the image of Abe Mitchell.
The first official Ryder Cup was played one year later on June 3-4, 1927, at the Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts, USA. Due to health reasons neither Ryder nor Mitchell were able to attend. Legendary golfer Walter Hagen led his American side to a 9.5-2.5 victory.
The cup was suspended during WW2 (1939-45) but resumed again in 1947. The United States then went on a winning spree, claiming victory in 16 of the next 17 cups, with a tie occurring in 1969 when Jack Nicklaus famously conceded a 4-foot putt to Tony Jacklin.
As such, interest in the cup began to wane, and in 1977 Jack Nicklaus suggested to the British PGA that its team should widen its talent pool to include players from Continental Europe.
In 1979, it was officially Europe versus the United States. Four fourball and four foursome matches were to be played on each of the first two days and 12 single matches on the third and final day. The total points awarded were 28. This is the format that continues today.
Although the United States claimed a 17-11 victory, the tournament was given a new lease of life. With a sharpened competitive edge, the cup has grown into the bubbling cauldron of patriotism, tension, sportsmanship, showmanship and camaraderie that we see today.
Since 1979, Europe has claimed ten victories, the United States seven and one match has been tied.
The eyes of the world will soon turn towards Hazeltine, USA, for the 2016 showdown. When the shadows lengthen across the fairways on that late Sunday afternoon, will it be chants of ‘USA! USA! USA!’ or “OLE OLE OLE” echoing into the history books?