ConsultantPeter Burns Sports author

A golfing battle like no other

Golf is often seen as an individual sport, but every other year since 1927, top golfers from both sides of the Atlantic have gone head to head in the Ryder Cup. The contest has seen controversy, rivalry and brilliant match play.

To date, the teams have clashed a total of 40 times, with America leading Europe in terms of wins. By tradition, both teams play not for prize money but national prestige.

6 June 1921

The opening skirmish


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George Duncan, who captained the British team to victory at Gleneagles in 1921.

The man with the best claim to having come up with the idea of what would eventually become the Ryder Cup was James D Harnett.

Harnett was circulation manager of America’s Golf Illustrated magazine. Looking to improve sales, he proposed sending a team of American golfers to the UK to take part in an international challenge match. With the help of the U.S. Professional Golfers Association, funds were raised and a team of 10 was drawn up. Gleneagles was settled on as the venue and the Glasgow Herald sponsored the match. Britain won easily, but the U.S. desire for revenge would need to wait a further five years.

An account of the first clash at Gleneagles

Gleneagles was an absolute revelation – a delightful surprise to all American golfers.

Jock Hutchison, part of America's 1921 international challenge team

4 June 1926

The lost Ryder Cup

Hulton Archive/Getty

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Samuel Ryder with his daughter Joan, pictured in 1930.

Five years after Gleneagles, American and British golfers fought again, this time at Wentworth near Surrey.

For the Wentworth competition, a St Albans-based entrepreneur, Samuel Ryder, donated a winners' trophy. Ryder had made his fortune selling penny packets of seeds and was a late convert to golf, having taken it up on medical advice aged 49. He quickly became passionate about the game and was keen to support an ongoing Britain versus America golf competition. Britain won decisively, but since half the American team were born elsewhere, this was not regarded as an official Ryder Cup clash.

A short biography of Samuel Ryder.Nine facts about the Ryder Cup trophy

I look upon the Royal and Ancient game as being a powerful force that influences the best things in humanity.

Samuel Ryder on his vision for the Ryder Cup competition

3 June 1927

The Ryder Cup begins in earnest

Hulton Archive/Getty

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Walter Hagen, who led the American team to victory in the first official Ryder Cup in 1927.

1927's Ryder Cup was the first properly official competition, with formal rules drawn up alongside a British and American selection process.

It was also the first time the Ryder Cup was contested in America, at the Worcester Country Club, Massachusetts. It was a struggle to raise travel costs for the nine-strong British team, and once secured they faced a rough six day transatlantic crossing. It was rough for the British golfers on the course as well, and they were beaten comfortably by the Americans, 9 ½ points to 2½. Because of the logistical problems, it was decided in future the Ryder Cup would be played every second year.

Biography of 1927 American captain Walter Hagen.

The Ryder Cup is simply two teams trying to knock seven bells out of each other, in the nicest possible way.

Peter Alliss, golf commentator

4 November 1951

The remarkable victory of Skip Alexander


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U.S. golfers Sam Snead, Frank Stranahan and Skip Alexander. Intended by Snead as a sacrificial lamb, Alexander instead scored a stunning victory.

World War 2 saw the Ryder Cup suspended, and in Britain, many golf courses became airfields. So when play resumed, the U.S. dominated.

The U.S. will to win was embodied by Skip Alexander who played at the Ryder Cup in 1951. A plane crash a year before had left his hands badly burned, but surgery meant he was still able to hold a golf club. U.S. captain Sam Snead, sparing the rest of his team, had Alexander play Britain’s best golfer, John Panton. Alexander’s hands were bandaged and bleeding, but remarkably he succeeded in defeating Panton by the widest margin in Ryder Cup history, eight points up with seven holes left to play.

Profile of Skip Alexander

20 September 1969

The concession

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When Jack Nicklaus conceded the final hole at the Belfry in 1969, it resulted in the first ever Ryder Cup draw (BBC Sport.)

The U.S. dominated the Ryder Cup in the fifties and sixties, but 1969 was the first draw — brought about by a supremely sporting gesture.

At the 18th hole, Tony Jacklin faced a putt to draw the match, but if he missed America would win. His opponent, America's Jack Nicklaus, sank a four foot putt, and then picked up Jacklin’s marker meaning the result was confirmed as a draw. As cup holders, America retained the trophy and Nicklaus’ concession is seen as one of the greatest ever sporting gestures. The two were friends and Nicklaus said later that he was not prepared to let Jacklin lose the Ryder Cup in front of a British crowd.

Profile of Jack NicklausTony Jacklin's official website

I don't think you would have missed that putt, but in these circumstances, I would never give you the opportunity!

Jack Nicklaus' comment to Tony Jacklin after Nicklaus' famous concession

14 September 1979

The rule change

Bob Thomas/Getty

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The young Seve Ballesteros in 1979. His debut in the new European Ryder Cup team that year heralded a dramatic change in fortune.

With 18 defeats from the previous 22 Ryder Cups, it was clear Britain and Ireland needed to take drastic action if the contest was to survive.

So a rule change was agreed, allowing the British and Irish team to bring in golfers from continental Europe as well. Investment in Spanish golf courses over several decades – and the good weather – had seen a flourishing of Spanish talent. The prime example was Seve Ballesteros, then the world’s greatest player, and now eligible to play in the Ryder Cup. Although Team Europe's first contest in 1979 saw another win for America, the age of Seve had begun – and with it, a turning of the tide.

The Seve Ballesteros Foundation

13 September 1985

The first European win

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In 1985, a putt by Sam Torrance ended nearly thirty years of American dominance of the Ryder Cup (BBC Sport.)

Perhaps sensing change was in the air, crowds of over 25, 000 descended on The Belfry near Birmingham for 1985's Ryder Cup clash.

Despite a strong opening start for Team USA, it was Europe who went into the final day with a two point lead. Ultimately, the contest came down to the match between Scot Sam Torrance and his American opponent Andy North. Torrance reached the final hole, a par 4, with just two shots. North meanwhile sent his ball into the lake and had to watch in despair as Torrance sank an extraordinary 20 foot putt. For the first time in nearly 30 years, the U.S. had been beaten.

Sam Torrance official website

Never have I felt as wonderful as I feel today. And never will I feel as wonderful.

Sam Torrance after Europe's 1985 Ryder Cup win

25 September 1987

The Spanish Armada sets sail

Jacqueline Duviosin/Getty

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Jose Maria Olazabal dances with joy as Europe wins the 1987 Ryder Cup.

1987's Ryder Cup was played at the Muirfield Village course in Ohio and saw the start of the competition's most successful partnership.

When Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal and Seve Ballesteros teamed up, they found a winning formula. Over three days, the pair defeated American golfing legends like Payne Stewart, Curtis Strange, Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw. Fittingly, it was Ballesteros who sank the winning putt, securing Europe's first Ryder Cup victory on U.S. soil in the process. A delighted Olazabal ended up dancing the cha-cha on the 18th green as Europe triumphed.

Profile of Jose Maria Olazabal

When Seve gets his Porsche going, not even San Pedro in Heaven can stop him.

Jose Maria Olazabal on his Ryder Cup partner Seve Ballesteros

22 September 1989

The feud

Phil Sheldon/Poppefoto

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A hand shake between Seve Ballesteros and Paul Azinger, but the tensions were never far away.

Possibly the U.S. were rankled by their first home loss, but the following Ryder Cup at The Belfry saw relations between the teams turning hostile.

At the pre-tournament ceremony, U.S. captain Raymond Floyd introduced his team as the "12 greatest players in the world." This incensed Team Europe, and tensions spilled on to the course. During his singles match with Paul Azinger, Seve Ballesteros asked to change his ball which was scuffed. Azinger disputed whether Seve's ball was unfit for play, and this marked the start of a long-running feud between them. Ultimately a draw meant Europe kept the Ryder Cup, but it was a bad-tempered affair.

Paul Azinger on his rivalry with Seve Ballesteros

The American team were 11 nice guys and Paul Azinger.

Seve Ballesteros, stoking the flames of his feud with American golfer Paul Azinger

27 September 1991

The war on the shore

Phil Sheldon/Popperfoto

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Bernhard Langer despairs as his missed putt hands America the Ryder Cup in 1991.

In the wake of the first Gulf War, 1991's Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, South Carolina was hyped by the American media as 'the war on the shore'.

The U.S. team captain drew on the patriotic fervour of the time, but Corey Pavin and Steve Pate’s decision to play wearing Operation Desert Storm caps, proved controversial. With the scores even, the contest was decided in the match between Bernhard Langer and Hale Irwin. Langer needed to sink a six foot putt to draw and so retain the Ryder Cup for Europe. His miss saw the Americans chant "USA! USA!" and the confrontational mood seemed a long way from Ryder’s original vision.

Profile of Bernhard Langer

We'd just finished the Gulf War. Patriotism was running high and I wanted to take advantage of that.

Dave Stockton, 1991 American Ryder Cup team captain

24 September 1999

The battle of Brookline

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Controversially, U.S. players, their wives and the media storm the 17th green at Brookline to celebrate Justin Leonard's putt (BBC Sport.)

The 1999 Ryder Cup played at Brookline, Massachusetts saw a winning comeback by the U.S., but an early victory celebration had Europe seething.

The jingoism of the 1991 clash spilled over again at Brookline, with boorish behaviour by both American and European fans. Scots golfer Colin Montgomerie was heckled and European captain Mark James would later describe Brookline as a bear pit. But the greatest furore came when U.S. Ryder Cup players, their wives and a cameraman invaded the 17th green to celebrate an amazing 45 foot putt by Justin Leonard when his opponent, Jose Maria Olazabal, still had a shot to take for a possible draw.

BBC Sport coverage of America's controversial win

I said, 'Olazabal can still win this, what's this all about?' We were so shocked about the invasion of the green.

Colin Montgomerie on America's premature victory celebrations at Brookline

27 September 2002

The Ryder Cup spirit returns

Jamie Squire/Getty

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Irishman Paul McGinley ends up in the Belfry's lake as Europe celebrates victory in the 2002 Ryder Cup.

The 2001 Ryder Cup had been scheduled for late September. But after the 9/11 attacks, it was postponed until 2002, and played at The Belfry.

With the 9/11 attacks still fresh in the mind, the 2002 clash saw both sides determined to put aside past tensions and play in the spirit Samuel Ryder intended. The contest produced some stunning golf, not least the victory of Welshman Philip Price, ranked 119th, over world number 2 Phil Mickelson. But it was Paul McGinley who sealed victory for Europe, holding his nerve to sink a 10 foot putt against Jim Furyk on the 18th. Joyous team mates then pitched McGinley into the Belfry’s lake.

Overview of the 2002 Ryder Cup

After September 11, things were put in perspective real quick.

Tiger Woods

28 September 2012

The miracle at Medinah

David Cannon/Getty

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Captain Jose Maria Olazabal and Team Europe celebrate the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history.

In 2012, at Medinah, Illinois, it was Europe who staged a miraculous comeback, with Seve Ballesteros’ death in 2011 only heightening the emotion.

Europe faced a huge task on the final Sunday. Ian Poulter's five straight birdies the day before had given them the slimmest of chances, but they needed 8½ points from 12 to win. Sensationally, they achieved the feat and won eight singles matches. Tiger Woods’ concession to Francesco Molinari on the 18th gave Europe the vital half point needed for outright victory. Two years later, a win at Gleneagles meant a European hat-trick. So with the 2016 Ryder Cup looming, can the U.S. re-assert itself?

BBC News coverage of Seve Ballesteros' death in 2011Ryder Cup official site

All men die, but not all men truly live, and those players made me feel alive again that week. That one was for Seve.

Jose Maria Olazabal congratulates his players on a sensational European Ryder Cup victory