Thursday, 3 May 2012

Ryder Cup 1983

Anyone out there remember the Wightman Cup? OK pipe down Barker and Wade. Anyone else? I thought not. For those of you still confused, the Wightman Cup was a tennis competition in the distant past contested annually between the top women from America and the UK. Set up by Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman in 1923, the tournament ran until 1989 with one small problem: America just kept on winning. Overall the Americans led the series 51-10, had won every event from 1979-1989, and had only lost six tournaments post-war. In a nutshell the tournament was a dodo, "the victim of a decade of United States dominance" as the New York Times aptly summed up.

Nowadays it is alarming, and slightly disconcerting, to recall how the Ryder Cup may well have headed the same way as its female tennis equivalent. Between the inaugural staging of the event in 1927 to the 1977 contest, America had triumphed 18 times, lost on just 3 occasions and drawn once. The tournament was in danger of limping to a very slow death, with television companies hardly falling over themselves to cover the event, and Tom Weiskopf highlighting the Americans indifference towards the occasion by skipping the 1977 tournament to go on a hunting trip. And people say Tiger Woods isn't a team player.

Fortunately, as you might know, this tale of woe has a happy ending. For this we should be eternally grateful to the Earl of Derby (the President of the PGA of Britain and Ireland) and Jack Nicklaus, who got together for a chin wag in 1977 that would change the course of golfing history forever. It was agreed that to make the event more competitive, continental European players would join the British and Irish team from 1979 onwards. "Without the inclusion of the European players, I think the U.S. would still be dominating and the Ryder Cup wouldn't have gained the worldwide stature it enjoys today" commented Nicklaus. To these two gentlemen we owe a huge debt.

It was obviously too much to expect the gap to close immediately, as the Americans ran out 17-11 winners in 1979 and won 18½-9½ in 1981. There were mitigating circumstances in the latter defeat: the American line-up is still regarded in some quarters as their greatest ever team (which could be a tale for another day). Conversely Europe decided to try and do things the hard way by leaving out double-major winner Ballesteros, who had not gained enough points on the European tour to grant an automatic place on the team (due to his participation on the US tour). Deciding to try and take on this awesome American team without Seve was tantamount to playing with one hand tied behind your back, although of course it is debatable if one man, albeit a miracle worker like Seve, could have made that much difference to the outcome.

Another disgruntled figure in 1981 was Tony Jacklin. Excluded from the team in favour of Mark James (who had blotted his copybook at Greenbrier in 1979 by almost missing the opening ceremony along with being absent from a team meeting), Jacklin rightfully felt aggrieved by anything to do with the European tour and the Ryder Cup. On this foundation of sand the 1983 European Ryder Cup team somehow managed to nearly pull off the unthinkable.

Ironically the first blocks to this relative success were set in place by both Jacklin and Ballesteros. Jacklin, at first astonished to be asked to captain the team, accepted the role and ensured that his key demands were met, to enable Europe to at least compete: first-class travel on Concorde, good quality clothing and equipment, the usual caddies travelling with their players, and a team room were to be introduced.

Jacklin also managed to talk Ballesteros out of his self-imposed exile after 1981. This was only achievable after Jacklin had met Ballesteros during the Open Championship at Birkdale. Fortunately Jacklin's silver tongue talked a hurt Ballesteros around, and Europe's only major winner (at the time) would in earnest begin his love affair with the great match.

Jacklin wasn't completely without faults though, as highlighted when he reportedly told Gordon J Brand on the flight over that he might only expect to play in the singles. Hardly the greatest motivation for Brand, although Jacklin figured that to have the best chance of winning that he needed to get his best golfers out on the course as much as possible. It is hard to argue with Jackin's methods though as he came within a whisker of defeating the Americans in their own backyard.

The first two days at the PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida were pleasantly surprising, probably to both sets of supporters. Not that any golf enthusiasts in Britain were able to follow the event on television avidly, the BBC only seeing fit to show action from America in ridiculously small time slots. This merely indicates how little the contest meant at the time, but from this year on things would never be the same again.

TV coverage on Saturday (left) and Sunday (right): hardly Sky Sportsesque

At the end of day one Europe led a stunned America 4½-3½. The morning foursomes were shared, although a defeated Ballesteros was concerned that his mentoring of young Paul Way wasn't working. Luckily Jacklin disagreed and sent the two of them out in the afternoon fourballs, his decision vindicated when the pairing triumphed with a 1 hole victory over Ray Floyd and Curtis Strange.

Day two was just as close. In the morning fourballs, Jacklin stuck to his line-up from the previous day, and at one point the plan seemed to be working a treat, as the first three matches on the course were all in Europe's favour. However, Brian Waites and Ken Brown lost from a strong position (3 up after 7), although it did require a chip-in on the last from Craig Stadler to beat them one-up. It is only in hindsight that such moments take on even more significance. Ballesteros and Way halved with Morgan and Haas, Faldo and Langer brushed Crenshaw and Peete aside, though Watson and Gilder returned the favour hammering Torrance and Woosnam 5 & 4. After 12 matches the score stood at 6-6.

Faldo and Langer were again triumphant in the afternoon foursomes, defeating Kite and Floyd 3 & 2. Both players would win four games during the three days, and two key components of Europe's future successes were cemented (temporarily forgetting Faldo's abysmal 1985 showing). Ballesteros and Way proved that Jacklin had the golden touch, as again they provided Europe with a point. However, Torrance and Jose-Maria Canizares were handed the mother of all shellackings, losing 7 & 5 to Morgan and Wadkins, and when Haas and Strange defeated Waites and Brown 3 & 2, the teams would be tied at 8-8 going into the final day.

The singles line-up, due to the tightness of the match, was of paramount importance, placing a heavy burden on the tactics of both captains. Jacklin went for strength at the top of the order in Ballesteros, Faldo and Langer, leaving the experienced Bernard Gallacher to bring up the rear. It looked like a masterstroke at one point as his top order all took early leads, though surprisingly from 3 up with 7 to play Ballesteros lost his way, allowing Fuzzy Zoeller to temporarily take the lead on the 15th. Seve hit back and the match was all-square going down the last. The par 5 18th favoured the longer hitter in Ballesteros but after a terrible drive and second shot he found himself in a fairway bunker still 245 yards from the green. It was then that Seve produced one of his many magical moments in his career.

Most mere mortals would have taken their medicine and played it safe, but we were not dealing with anyone ordinary here. Seve elected to play his 3-wood (yes 3-wood) and take on the lip of the bunker, water and defeat in a moment of sheer bravery and audacity. Bernhard Langer (who had already finished his singles match) takes up the story: "I thought, what is he going to do with that? The ball was in the sand a few feet away from a two-foot lip. Then I saw the most amazing shot I have ever seen. He didn’t just clear the lip, he drew the ball, starting it out over the lake and on to the green". Jack Nicklaus gave the shot his ultimate praise, describing it as "the greatest shot I’ve ever seen". The notoriety of the shot has taken on even more significance in recent years due to Seve's untimely death, and also down to the fact that footage of the clip does not exist. A campaign has been launched by keyboard warriors to try and find the clip. Let us hope that one day the search is successful.

Seve's miracle shot enabled him to escape with a half, and when Faldo and Langer won their matches, Jacklin's plan seemed to be coming together. However, Gilder, Crenshaw and Peete defeated Brand, Lyle and Waites respectively to edge the Americans in front, and Woosnam's loss to Stadler meant the tide was turning very much in favour of the hosts. But just as hope seemed to be disappearing over the horizon, Europe dragged things back as Way surprisingly beat Curtis Strange 2 & 1 and when Ken Brown thrashed Ray Floyd 4 & 3 the scoreboard ticked over to 12½-12½. It was now squeaky bum time, even before that particular saying had entered our consciousness.

Things were not looking too hopeful for Europe, as they were down in two of the three matches remaining. But from nowhere, Sam Torrance managed to rescue a half against Tom Kite, coming from two down with three to play thus providing Europe with an unexpected bonus. His pitch at the last to within inches of the hole was another iconic moment of the 1983 Ryder Cup, and more importantly it looked as if Europe were going to get out of the match with an honourable draw.

At 13-13 European aspirations lay with Jose-Maria Canizares hoping that he would deliver the win over Lanny Wadkins that meant the Americans could not win outright  (14-all would of course enable America to retain the cup, but beggars can't be choosers). And then, ever so slowly, the wheels began to come off. From 3 up with 7 to play the strain started to show on the Spaniard and playing the last he found himself just one-up. Like Ballesteros before him, Canizares played the last badly, and without the skill or mental strength of his fellow countryman, the game was almost up. Wadkins then produced the hammer blow by mimicking Torrance's superb approach to the last and the crucial half point he gained proved costly for Europe. Nicklaus was so relieved that he even found time to kiss the divot that Wadkins had played the key shot from. USA 13½ Europe 13½.

There was still a glimmer of hope for the Europeans in the Gallacher-Watson match, although attempting to come from one down with two to play against the reigning Open champion was never going to be an easy task for the experienced Scot. It was however galling that Gallacher should double bogey the par three 17th, thus allowing Watson to secure the crucial winning point with a bogey four, giving the Americans a 14½-13½ victory. Hardly the fitting end to such a great Ryder Cup.

Although hard to take at the time, the Europeans knew that they had given the Americans an almighty fright, and their frustration at having let the match slip out of their grasp only served to show how far they had come. Ballesteros, ever the optimist, declared to the team that "This wasn't a loss, this was a win, just to have got so close". From this moment on the Ryder Cup grew and grew, so much so that the beast almost got out of control, notably at Kiawah in 1991 and at Brookline in 1999. It appeared that the Americans didn't like things to be more competitive after all, but there can be no doubting that the introduction of the European players, and Seve Ballesteros in particular, saved this cup, and for 1983 and the belief it gave to the Europeans, we must look back on this defeat with pride.


  1. "I'm playing with Seve! I'm playing with Seve!" - one of my favourite all-time sporting quotes, from Paul Way when the Ryder Cup pairings were announced.

  2. It is hard to argue with Jackin's methods though as he came within a whisker of defeating the Americans in their own backyard. all available to coaches today

  3. I am still searching the world it seems for Seve's bunker shot at 18. Click on "clip" above to see the link I posted. Any help would be appreciated.

  4. It is hard to imagine with our wall-to-wall sporting coverage today, along with the prevalence of mobile phones, that in the past not everything was covered.