Ryder Cup: Now and Then

In Partnership with Rolex Logo

This September the Ryder Cup ventures to Le Golf National in Paris for the 42nd Ryder Cup. Set against the stunning backdrop of the Palace of Versailles and the Eiffel Tower, the match will be viewed by an audience estimated to be over 500 million worldwide.

But it has not always been like this. The contest had humble beginnings and even in the last forty years it has been transformed from a mismatch into a titanic continental clash. In partnership with Rolex, Official Partner of the Ryder Cup and sponsor of the European Tour, ESPN takes a look at the history and innovation of golf's greatest rivalry.

The Players

Team America in the 1927 Ryder Cup
Photo By Bettmann / Contributor

When Samuel Ryder created the Ryder Cup he hoped not only to create an exciting competition, but also to foster unity between the professional golfers on either side of the Atlantic. However, his early plans were somewhat scuppered by a reluctance among the golf club members of Great Britain and Ireland to offer the project any sort of assistance. "I would no more send a professional player to America to play golf," wrote one reader of Philpott's magazine, "than I would my chimney sweep."

In striking contrast, American professionals in 1927 were well-valued and highly remunerated. Well into the 1970s, the contrast between the two sets of competitors was vast, with the Americans always including multiple major winners sponsored by worldwide organisations whilst the British and Irish rarely played majors and often still worked as club professionals.

Only in the 1980s did that change, aided by Team GB&I being turned into Team Europe, and this year will be testament to the growing equality of each side, from world ranking, to major success, even as far as society's respect. If Rolex Testimonees Jon Rahm and Rickie Fowler were to meet in the singles, it would be on an entirely equal footing, unlike the gulf that existed in the past.

The Competitiveness

In 1969, Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin playing their singles match the round prior to the famous "Concession".
Photo By PA Images / Contributor

The first four matches in Ryder Cup history went with home advantage, but soon the greater depth of American golf revealed itself. Indeed, the United States claimed no less than 12 of the next 13 matches. In 1969 there was a tie, thanks in part to Rolex Testimonee Jack Nicklaus, who conceded a short putt to Tony Jacklin on the final hole, adding the words: "I don't think you'd have missed it, but I wasn't going to give you the chance either." It was a gesture of sportsmanship which has been celebrated ever since, but many of his team-mates were said to be furious, proving that American dominance had not made them soft.

In the 1970s the match lurched towards irrelevance as GB&I failed to muster any sort of fight. All the while, Nicklaus urged the inclusion of Europe and in 1979 he got his wish. Initially, nothing changed. In fact, the American team of 1981, with 11 major winners, had never been stronger.

However, victory for Europe at the Belfry in 1985 completely altered the picture. They not only defended their title two years later, it was also a first defeat for the Americans on home soil. Thirty-one years later the boot is on the other foot. Up to and including the 1983 match, USA won 18 matches and lost three, with one tie. Since then Europe have been the winners ten times, the USA five times, with the 1989 match tied. It is a stunning turnaround that has fuelled golf's worldwide appeal.

The Rivalry

American supporters run onto the course at the 1999 Ryder Cup
Photo By Stephen Munday / Staff

An original aim of Ryder's was to bind two countries together, a noble aim and one which initially succeeded, even if there was the odd disagreement. On the whole relations were competitive but friendly, an atmosphere that was unlikely to change given America's command of the match.

What changed was the arrival of not only the Europeans, but one in particular: Severiano Ballesteros. He was fuelled by a rage against what he perceived to be American loftiness and he urged his team to rise up against their opponents. Once that was achieved with Europe holding the trophy from 1985 to 1989, there was an inevitable backlash.

The touch paper had been lit and such was the animosity at Kiawah Island in 1991 the match was christened "War on the Shore, with America reclaiming the trophy.

Eight years later Brookline witnessed the most heated Ryder Cup week of them all, one which left next European captain Sam Torrance and his opposite number Curtis Strange desperate to improve relations. It has worked. The match remains as closely fought as it has ever been and yet the players recognise the friendships that exist across continental boundaries. It is common for the two teams to end up in the same team room at the end of the match and when Rolex Testimonees Martin Kaymer and Tiger Woods were on opposite sides in 2012 they ended the week stronger friends and colleagues.


European team captain Bernhard Langer kisses the Ryder Cup 19 September, 2004 at Oakland Hills Country

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the changes in the Ryder Cup more than the precision now required by the teams and their captains. In the original matches the foursome and fourball pairings were allotted a few hours before play starts; in 2016 Darren Clarke's combinations for Team Europe were informed by statistical analysis, mental assessments and two years of personal observations.

It was once the case that the GB&I team were gifted a knitted sweater the night before the match. Even in 1979 they walked the course in a combination of hats and visors which relied on personal preference. It was Tony Jacklin, brought in as captain in 1983, who insisted that the European team must be afforded the same luxuries as the American side; that to perform as equals they must be treated as them.

In 2004, Rolex Testimonee Bernhard Langer rewrote the book on how to assemble a team and produce a result. Widely acknowledged to have been the most rigorous and precise team Europe had ever produced, they broke the record books with a nine-point victory at Oakland Hills. Langer left nothing to chance and set down a template that is used to this day by the captains of both teams.

Furthermore, for the early matches the teams arrived at the course just days before the match. This year Rolex Testimonee Justin Thomas visited Le Golf National during the Open de France, so keen was he to be ahead of the game.

The Scale

Martin Kaymer of Europe hits his opening tee shot of the 2014 Ryder Cup
Photo By Harry How / Staff

In 1926, Wentworth hosted an unofficial match between the two sides for which £5 was pledged to the winning team with champagne and chicken sandwiches on offer at a party afterwards. A year later, Ryder had inaugurated the official contest, but the first GB&I team were short of funds and with the home public reticent in their support, Nuwara Eliya Golf Club -- high in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka -- sent a cheque for £25.

It seems astonishing that the team had to go cap in hand to benefactors and yet even ahead of the 1981 match the best options on the table for sponsorship were £80,000 of cigarette coupons or £100,000 of Green Shield stamps. Moreover, only two years later the President of ABC television, Roone Arledge, was reported to have offered to pay back $1 million to the PGA of America in order not to have to broadcast the match from PGA National. It would have been hard to imagine that within a few years the match would be one of the jewels in the crown of worldwide sport. So much so that after the 2014 match at Gleneagles it was reported that it had generated spending of over £106 million in Scotland.

Time stops for no man and certainly not for the 24 golfers who compete in the Ryder Cup every two years. The progress made since the first official match in 1927 is remarkable and the changes since the integration of a European team in 1979 is arguably even more extraordinary. What is striking is that the Ryder Cup continues to look forward and is always expanding. What was once an end-of-season friendly is now unquestionably one of the highlights of the global sporting calendar.

Rolex has been at the heart of golf for more than 50 years, and its involvement with the Ryder Cup since 1995 has been a crucial part of the Swiss watchmaker's alliance with the sport. Rolex will sponsor the 2018 edition of the event which will be held at Le Golf National, close to Paris, where the clocks at Le Golf National's Albatros course will serve as a reminder of Rolex's long-standing commitment to the development of the game at every level.