The Ryder Cup matches, which biennially pit what they've got in Great Britain against the cream of the U.S. pro tour, are a team competition of such complexity that it is almost impossible for them to be dominated by the efforts of a single player. Yet this is what happened last week at the Old Warson Country Club outside St. Louis, where Arnold Palmer, like some gray-haired colossus brandishing a one-iron, headed off an initially high-spirited challenge by Britain's bright new golfing youth movement and led the U.S. to an 18½-13½ victory.
Palmer turned 42 the week before the matches began, but with early help from another American golfing relic, and later a hand from his old friend Jack Nicklaus, he kept defeating British players only slightly more than half his age. On opening day, when the British bid looked serious, he was paired with 44-year-old Gardner Dickinson in two matches against a couple of tender youths, Peter Townsend and Peter Oosterhuis, whose combined age came to 48. During the morning match Palmer reached the green with his team's second shot on the 6th hole, a narrow par 5 of 530 yards, and the U.S. two-putted for a birdie. He holed birdie putts after two fine Dickinson approach shots at the 9th and 12th, and delivered the coup de grace before a shouting gallery of several thousand packed around the 18th green. This was a six-iron that hit 20 feet past the flag-stick and spun back to within six inches of the hole. The shot meant a two-up victory, the only win for the U.S. in Thursday morning's team matches. Then, in the afternoon, Palmer dropped a 15-foot putt for a birdie on the 16th hole to finally put his team ahead, and he and Dickinson went on to win one up, a most necessary victory on a day that saw the British off to a 4½-3½ lead and the U.S. staggering.
The following day, Black Friday for the British, Palmer began by pairing with Dickinson and routing Townsend and Bernard Gallacher (with Gallacher in for Oosterhuis, the Britons' combined age dropped to 45). Then he teamed with Nicklaus to win the match of matches, a wonderful birdie battle with Townsend and Harry Bannerman that all but settled the Ryder Cup outcome.
While last week's Ryder Cup may not have been much in the way of an example of youth being served, the matches as an event showed a youthful zest all their own. Crowds of up to 10,000 flowed around the course each day to watch what was a limited amount of play by American pro tour standards, and the gallery enthusiasm proved that this competition can be a solid success on the American sports scene. The excitement was a dramatic improvement over things four years ago when the matches, held at the Champions Golf Club in Houston, were just another in a long line of lightly attended massacres, with the last rites being murmured over the expiring body. The U.S. team won by an overwhelming score of 23½-8½ under the eyes of a few red-coated officials and a couple of wives, and everyone was on the lookout for some sort of appropriate burial ground. Everyone, that is, except the American players, who happen to sincerely regard making a Ryder Cup team as an honored chance to play for something other than their own bank accounts.
September 26, 1971
One problem in building the Ryder Cup as a gate attraction is a format so unfamiliar to Americans that even the most devoted golf fans have difficulty in figuring out who on the 12-man teams is doing what to—or with—whom. The first day's play is particularly confusing, with four two-man teams representing each side playing a total of eight matches, four in the morning and four in the afternoon. Each team plays a single ball, the partners hitting alternate drives off the tees and alternate shots and putts thereafter. On the second day there is the same arrangement of pairings, but each man plays his own ball, low score on each hole counting for the partnership. On the final day things clear up a little. This is singles match play, man against man. With eight matches played in the morning and another eight in the afternoon, for 16 of the 32 points at stake for the three days, this usually is the critical day—and the day the U.S. almost always carries.
The style of play is not exactly a way of life on the U.S. tour, which has only one match-play tournament on its schedule of 40-plus events. Nevertheless, the U.S. has now won 15 of the 19 Ryder Cup matches, the six played in this country since World War II decisively, by a total of 83½ points to Britain's 28½. The style is not really a way of life on the British tour either, despite American suspicions to the contrary, but in the six matches held in England since the war the British have at least made a brave try at holding their own. They have been outscored in total points by only 68 to 56 and have won the cup once and tied for it once.
The tie was achieved two years ago when the U.S. pros, with good cause to be confident, journeyed to Southport, England. They were termed a 5-to-1 favorite by British bookies, but somehow managed to get lost in the tall grass and rolling sand dunes at Royal Birkdale and salvaged a tie only because Nicklaus was able to sink a four-foot putt on the last hole of the last match on the last day.
This year, after the first day in St. Louis, it seemed the British had not lost the momentum of two years ago. Their nonplaying team captain, Eric Brown, certainly thought not. "We used to be very much in awe of the Americans, but that is not true of this bunch of youngsters," he said. Brown is a 46-year-old Scot with glittering pale-blue eyes, the nose of an eagle and a chin that looks as if it could drive tent stakes. Awe of Americans has never been one of his problems. His violently competitive temperament is well known on both sides of the Atlantic. In four tries as a player he never lost a Ryder Cup singles match, and he defeated such as Lloyd Mangrum, Jerry Barber, Tommy Bolt and Cary Middlecoff—an impressive record. His 1957 match against Bolt was vividly short on international diplomacy. Tempers rose throughout the day, and when Bolt finally stalked off the 33rd green, beaten four down with three to play, he announced, "I guess you've bleeping well won the game, but I didn't enjoy it one bleeping bit."
"Of course you didn't," Brown retorted. "You bleeping well knew you were going to be beaten."
Brown's was the kind of spirit needed to shake the British out of their role of habitual loser. It had worked for him in 1957, it almost worked at Royal Birkdale 12 years later—his first assignment as captain—and it appeared to be working at the start of things last week in St. Louis. But on Friday morning not only did Palmer and Dickinson do in young Oosterhuis and Gallacher, the U.S. took the other three matches as well, all by 2 and 1. And the British struggled gamely during the afternoon, but Palmer and Nicklaus barred the way.
Their opponents, Townsend and Bannerman, played as if unaware that in Palmer and Nicklaus they faced a pair that had won four World Cup championships and three PGA team titles. Both sides were hitting tightly accurate approach shots and following them with firm putts. When Nicklaus rolled in. a breathtaking putt of 80 feet across the 8th green, the U.S. pair found itself five under par. Superb. And one down. Unbelievable. It may have been frustrating for the Americans, but as Nicklaus observed later, "Think how discouraging it must have been for them to have birdied six of the first eight holes and only lead by one."
With that 80-foot putt, Nicklaus picked up just where it seemed clear that Palmer was ready to leave off. He had begun to hit tired shots, and it was left to Nicklaus to birdie the 360-yard 14th hole, evening the match with a wedge shot to within 18 inches of the flag and a skidding putt that just made it over the right edge of the cup. Nicklaus then won the match on the 456-yard closing hole with a seven-iron that faded in some 15 feet to the left of the flagstick and a birdie putt that dropped just as darkness was closing down over the course. Palmer did not hide his vast relief.
"Falling behind those two young guys made things especially difficult," he admitted later. "We were very conscious of the fact that we were in danger of losing. When you play against Lee Trevino and people of that caliber and lose, so what, it's no disgrace, but what would everybody start thinking if we lost to those two kids?"
The birdie putt by Nicklaus provided the U.S. with a solid four-point lead that held up despite a vigorous assault by the British in Saturday's 16 singles matches. Palmer, walking slowly and pausing to rest whenever he had the time or the chance, halved his morning match with Bannerman and in the afternoon lost to Oosterhuis, but by that time the U.S. was the winner.
"Jay Hebert, the U.S. nonplaying captain, never figured on having to use Arnold in all six matches, but the way things were going he just had to," said Trevino, who is still recovering from his appendectomy of a few weeks ago but played five matches himself.
Trevino turned in three wins, a loss and a tie. Dickinson won four out of five and Nicklaus won five straight after a loss with Dave Stockton on the opening morning. And a welcome surprise was J.C. Snead, who, making his first Ryder Cup appearance, won all four matches in which he took part.
Of the 12-man team, only Nicklaus and Palmer played all six matches. "Those British youngsters made it a hard week," Palmer said when it was all over. He was resplendent in white jacket, white trousers and a powder-blue shirt as he moved slowly through a tangle of gushing young women in the clubhouse lobby. "We all expected it to be a close match. It was tough, and from now on it will always be tough."
The right thing to say, definitely, but not a statement to stick in your mind like the one he had made on Friday. Relaxing over a beer after his fourth win, Palmer said, "Was I trying extra hard to win because they were just young—ah—kids? You've got to know I was."