On Tuesday afternoon there was a whoosh and a roar as Arnold Palmer's Jet Commander swooped low over the Champions Golf Club northwest of Houston. A short while later Palmer was on the practice tee, running through a repertoire of shots, when he learned that he had better start practicing with the smaller British ball for the Ryder Cup matches that were to start on Friday. Orders from nonplaying Captain Ben Hogan. Soon Hogan drove up in a cart, and Palmer asked him if he had an extra box of British balls. "What for?" said Hogan, giving Arnold one of those Hawk looks. "You haven't made the team yet."
That more or less set the tone for the Ryder Cup weekend, that biennial agony of British golf (this year's victory was the 14th for the U.S. in 17 meetings). The steely personality and determination of Ben Hogan, now mellowed a bit by the years, dominated the American victory. The dash and flair of Arnold Palmer provided the color.
Goodness knows, the three days of golf at Houston needed some thrills from somebody. By the end of the first day's Scotch foursome matches, there was little doubt that the outcome would be just about what it turned out to be: U.S. 23½, Great Britain 8½.
Of course, if one looked at it with the utmost charity it could have been said, at the conclusion of Friday's matches, that there had been a modicum of suspense. The team of Tony Jacklin and Dave Thomas, the strongest British pair, had won an easy 4 and 3 victory in the morning over Doug Sanders and Gay Brewer, but this was offset by the 6 and 5 win of Johnny Pott and Bobby Nichols in their match. Bill Casper and Julius Boros played all even with Brian Huggett and George Will.
That left the morning's deciding match to Palmer and his partner, Gardner Dickinson. They were playing nip and tuck with the experienced British combination of Christy O'Connor, who is really an Irishman, and Peter Alliss. At the 15th hole, when the match could have gone either way, Dickinson hooked his drive into the trees, and it was Palmer's job to extricate the ball in this alternate shot format. It appeared that Arnold had no shot at all to the green, but with a six-iron he hooked the ball through and around the pines and oaks in his path and onto the green, stopping some 10 feet from the pin. Dickinson holed the putt for a birdie that gave the pair its lead and eventual victory.
That afternoon it was the same story, only more so. Jacklin and Thomas won their match, but the Americans won the other three, and the event proceeded into the second day with the Yanks well in command. "Several of the matches could have gone either way," Hogan observed. "A few short putts here and there and it might have been a different story."
"Yes," sighed Pat Ward-Thomas, the golfing correspondent of The Guardian. "But why is it that the stronger side is always the one that makes the short putts?" And there was no question but that Palmer's miraculous six-iron shot at the 15th first swung the tide in the Americans' direction.
Saturday's play was devoted to four-ball team matches, and that spelled the end for the British. Seven of the eight matches went to the Americans, and the other was halved, giving the home side an insurmountable lead of 13-3 to take into the final day's singles. The slight suspense evident on Friday was long gone. To be sure, there was some wonderful golf to watch from time to time, but it was not the kind of team contest to make anyone hold his breath. Happily, Palmer was on hand—and Hogan.
Hogan had withheld Palmer from the Saturday morning matches, a decision that brought forth a marvelous exchange between Hogan and the press and one to be savored by all devotees of Hoganiana.
"Did Palmer ask to be rested in the morning?" asked one of the reporters.
"No," Hogan replied. "I'm the captain, and I decide who plays and who doesn't play."
"Then why won't Palmer play in the morning?"
"Because I say he won't."
"Is there a reason?"
"May I ask the reason?"
"Yes, you can ask, but I won't tell you."
With 10 members on a Ryder Cup team and only eight needed at any one time, most captains try to give each of the players at least one breather, if possible. Whatever the reason, Arnold took it easy Saturday morning and then teamed with Julius Boros for the afternoon's four-ball against what looked to be the weakest of all the British pairings—George Will and Hugh Boyle.
On paper it was a mismatch, but on the course, almost before you looked up, Palmer and Boros were 3 down, and they were 4 down at the turn. Then Palmer came alive. He won the 10th with a routine par, but at the 466-yard 11th, he put a long iron four feet from the hole and sank it for a birdie 3. The short 12th was halved with pars. On the 544-yard 13th Arnold reached the green with a drive and an iron and two-putted for another birdie, and then at the 14th he hit another long iron four feet from the pin for his third birdie in four holes. That evened the match, and the British bogeyed the 18th to lose. Palmer's charge gave his side the win and breathed life into an otherwise humdrum day of American victory.
Ever since Samuel Ryder, a British optimist, donated his solid-gold trophy back in 1927, this same one-sided monotony has been going on much too often. The British pros simply do not play golf with the same killer instinct that drives the Americans. Yet, even so, the Ryder Cup has a very large meaning for both sides. The pomp and ceremony that goes with it, the flag raisings and the playing of national anthems, and the panache that attaches to membership on the Ryder Cup team inject a refreshingly noncommercial moment into one of the most blatantly commercial of American sports. Billy Casper, who is widely, if inaccurately, regarded as a rather phlegmatic type, tried to explain what it feels like. It really hits you, he said, during the flag-raising ceremonies when they play God Save the Queen and The Star-Spangled Banner. Last week, Casper was playing on his fourth Ryder Cup team, but it still got him. He hit the first drive for the American side on the first day of competition, and it was fine, right down the middle of the fairway. But to Casper, it had been a moment of sheer panic. He had stood at attention through the opening formalities, watching the flags and listening to the anthems. By the time he hit his drive, he said, he could scarcely breathe. "Did you ever try to hit a golf ball without any oxygen in your system?" he asked.
So long as playing for one's country means that much to the pros, the monotony will be worth it. In fact, you can believe them when they tell you it means more than money.