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The Two Greatest Ryder Cup Upsets That History Has (Almost) Forgotten

Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were on the losing end of two all-time Ryder Cup upsets. Here's a look back at those improbable singles matches.
Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were both at the height of their powers (and popularity) when they suffered shocking losses in Ryder Cup matches.

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were both at the height of their powers (and popularity) when they suffered shocking losses in Ryder Cup matches.

As Ryder Cup week approaches, a look at perhaps the two greatest upsets in Ryder Cup history is in order. Interestingly, Arnold Palmer played a pivotal role in each of the two singles losses.

The first involved England’s Peter Alliss and Palmer, with a cameo from Tony Lema. And, as part of the story, we get to examine the provenance of one of the more snide, sexist and politically incorrect sayings in golf.

The year: 1963

The protagonists

Peter Alliss: Passed away a year ago at 89, but is remembered by most Americans as a smooth, mellifluous and portly Brit, and the successor to England’s Henry Longhurst as The Voice of Golf. Alliss is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame in the Lifetime Achievement category, but he was also a heck of a player. Son of the famous British golfer, Percy Alliss, Peter Alliss won 20 professional tournaments, including three British PGA Championships. He had five top-10 finishes in the British Open, and made only two appearances in the U.S. to play majors — missing the cut both times at the Masters. 

Alliss played on eight Ryder Cup teams between 1953 and 1969, going 10-15-5. He and his father Percy were the first father-son combo to both participate in and win the Ryder Cup.

Tony Lema: At the peak of his game in 1963, Lema was known as "Champagne Tony" and was perhaps second only to Palmer in fan popularity. As a youngster in Oakland, Calif., he had been sponsored by wealthy car dealer Eddie Lowery (who did the same for Ken Venturi). Lowery had been the 10-year-old caddie for Francis Ouimet when Ouimet famously became the second American, and first amateur, to win the U.S. Open in 1913.

In 1963, Lema finished second in the Masters, and a year later he won the British Open. He died in a plane crash in 1966 at just 32-years old.

Alliss later wrote that Lema’s swing (which, according to journalist Bill Fields in 2014, was much admired by a young Johnny Miller — especially when Miller wanted to hit a draw) was an "elegant swing of rare beauty. ... On the course he always seemed tense and nervous, rather like Bobby Jones, but had the same grace under pressure."

Arnold Palmer: Still a presence in 1963, he had won six of his seven career majors. He was a fan favorite and a slasher — a throw-caution-to-winds swashbuckler extraordinaire. Think Phil Mickelson on steroids, and the ladies flat-out swooned for Palmer, his magnetism and skill helping take golf to a new level. 

Palmer played on six Ryder Cup teams, all winners, and captained a winning seventh team. An argument could be made that he was perhaps the greatest Ryder Cup player of all-time. He ended his career with Ryder Cup records for match wins, points won and winning percentage, and shared several others. Palmer still has the best-ever record — 22-8-2, .719 — among all Americans with at least 15 matches played.

Alliss and Palmer played a singles match during the 1961 Ryder Cup at Royal Lytham, and the match was halved, a surprising half-point for Alliss.

Palmer said this about that 1961 match: “Peter was an elegant and accomplished player. As most of the British players did, he shaped his shots for control purposes, from left to right in a controlled fade. I greatly admired the way Peter played the game, with such precision and accuracy, which was almost nothing like my style. It says something about the man’s quiet tenacity that I had to work my tail off simply to halve with him. Cordially shaking hands at the match’s conclusion, I think both of us knew we’d been in a dogfight — and would probably be in a few more before things were over.”

Prescient words, indeed.

The 1963 Ryder Cup was in Atlanta. At the time, 16 singles matches were staged on the final day — eight in the morning and eight in the afternoon.

Improbably, incredibly, Alliss defeated Palmer in the morning, 1-up. An upset for the ages. But Alliss was not done yet. In the afternoon singles, he halved with Tony Lema.

So, in three Ryder Cup matches over two years, twice against Palmer and once against Lema, Allis was 1-0-2. Spectacular stuff.

As Alliss reached the pinnacle of his career — knocking off Arnold Palmer in the Ryder Cup — he made another kind of history.

At one point in that match, Alliss, for whom putting was his weak suit, badly missed a 3-foot putt. Someone in the gallery yelled, “Way to leave it short, Alliss!” That moment landed, and the phrase transformed into the derogatory, inappropriate, manhood-demeaning and totally politically incorrect epiphet, “Hit it, Alice” when a gentleman leaves a putt short. And that is golf history.

The year: 1975

The protagonists

Brian Barnes: An Englishman who passed away in 2019. Barnes played in six consecutive Ryder Cup matches from 1969 to 1979. He was one of the leading European Tour golfers in the early years after the tour was founded in 1972, and he placed between fourth and eighth on the Order of Merit each year from 1972 to 1980. He won nine events on the Tour between 1972 and 1981.

Barnes completed all four rounds of the British Open 16 successive years from 1967 to 1982 and had three top-10 finishes, the best being a tie for fifth in 1972. He never fared well in the U.S. — he played in the Masters in 1972 and 1973 and, like Allis, missed the cut each time.

Barnes was a character and an entertainer, often smoking a pipe when playing and sometimes marking his ball on the green with a beer can. He and alcohol were no strangers, sadly, as that relationship eventually hastened the loss of his game. Barnes was also a married-in member of British golf royalty, as his wife was the daughter of Max Faulkner, winner of the 1951 British Open.

So, again we have an Englishman who was hardly a slouch, but most U.S. fans had never heard of him. He was no one to strike fear into the game’s elite.

And in 1975, there was no golfer more elite than Jack Nicklaus.

Jack Nicklaus: In 1975, Nicklaus was at the height of his game. The Golden Bear, 35, was the world’s unquestioned best player and had won 14 majors prior to the 1975 Ryder Cup (he’d also finished runner-up nine additional times). In 1975 he won both the Masters and the PGA Championship and finished T-3 in the British Open and T-7 in the U.S. Open.

Arnold Palmer: At 46, he was still a force at times, having held the 36-hole lead at the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot before finishing fifth. At this particular Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley, he was a non-playing captain. His relationship with Nicklaus had morphed over the years, starting as what can fairly be called rivals before evolving into frenemies as Palmer declined and Nicklaus became a superstar. Their relationship eventually became warm and respectful, friendly. The 1975 Ryder Cup took place in the frenemies period.

As in 1963, Ryder Cup Sunday featured singles matches both in the morning and the afternoon. Barnes and Nicklaus were paired in the morning round as the last match out. As Nicklaus recalls, “We talked about fishing all morning.” Whatever the conversation, it worked well for Barnes, as he crushed Nicklaus, 4 and 2.

At the lunch break Nicklaus, hardly a smack-talker, very uncharacteristically lobbied his captain, Palmer, for another shot at Barnes. Palmer acceded to the request and, again, Barnes and Nicklaus went out as the last match.

In the afternoon, Nicklaus opened with two birdies before Barnes fought back to win, 2 and 1.

Nicklaus said years later: “To be honest, too much has been made of Barnesy beating me twice on Sunday at the 1975 Ryder Cup. Why? Because Brian Barnes was a tough competitor. Played in six straight Ryder Cups, won 20 times as a pro and enjoyed success on both sides of the pond — before and after he turned 50.”

This was Barnes' take as presented in his obituary in the "Guardian":

“When we went to the press tent after the morning round everybody acted as if I’d beaten Jesus Christ,” Barnes said in a 2012 interview with "Today’s Golfer." “He was Jesus Christ as far as golf was concerned, but he was still beatable.

“The Yanks only needed one or two more points to win and while I was still continuing with the interviews, Jack had gone to Arnold [Palmer, the U.S. captain] and said: ‘Look, there is only one match the punters want to see, and that’s Barnesy and I.’ That was the only time in the history of the Ryder Cup that the match order was changed at that late stage. While that was going on, I was asked ‘Would you like the opportunity to play ‘The Bear’ again this afternoon?’ I replied: ‘Well, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.’”

Except that it did. Palmer could not help himself from taking a little jab at Nicklaus while accepting the Samuel Ryder trophy as the winning team’s captain.

“The American team did a very outstanding job, even if Jack did lose two matches today to Brian Barnes. He doesn’t mind, really,” Palmer said.

Nicklaus shouted back, “Oh, yes I do” with a sheepish smile on his face.

One last common thread ties the 1963 and 1975 upsets. Both took place on American soil, but it’s not just the home turf advantage that Allis and Barnes needed to overcome — it was also the ball. The Brits used a smaller golf ball until 1974, and since neither Alliss nor Barnes played golf in the U.S. with the larger ball, it was an even more impressive feat to produce the golf that they did.

Because golfers on both sides of the pond are so well-known today, it would be difficult to conjure up a major upset that would rival those aforementioned.