A Cruise with The Boys of '21

History says the first Ryder Cup took place in 1927. The men who squared off in an international match at Gleneagles six years earlier tell a different story
September 15, 2008

IT WAS OUR thirdnight out of Southampton on the Queen Mary 2, and I was enjoying a moonlitstroll on the promenade. I cut an impressive figure, if I may say so, in mytuxedo and polished slippers. Passing couples gave me a backward glance ontheir way to the Royal Court Theater to watch a Broadway-bound revival ofTitanic. ¬∂ "Excuse me," I asked a white-uniformed steward. "Could Ihave a light?" I lowered my head to the proffered flame, took a puff or twoon my cigarette—just enough to get it going—and then leaned casually againstthe rail. "Thanks," I said, trying not to cough. ¬∂ I don't smoke, yousee. But I've learned, in the years since my first visit by a golf ghost, thatcertain specters need coaxing to appear, and sometimes a period marker likesmoking or a steamer trunk will draw them out. On this occasion I was fishingfor the ghost of the long-forgotten English golf star, Abe Mitchell, a man whoin his time was hailed as "the most accomplished British golfer never towin the Open." Mitchell was Samuel Ryder's personal golf coach, and it isMitchell's figure that stands atop the Ryder Cup.

MY CIGARETTE hadburned halfway down when the moon ducked behind a cloud and the ship's hornissued a deep, prolonged blast. Looking over my shoulder, I caught a glimpse ofa man in a woolen jacket and plus fours disappearing down a metal stairway. Icrossed the promenade, stopping only to bury my smoke in a sand saucer, andfollowed him down the stairs. After 13 visitations I know the drill.

The handrail wascold and wet, and I turned onto a deck shrouded in fog. The mystery man waswaiting for me, his hands clasped in front of him like a funeral usher.

"Mr. Mitchell,I presume?" I flashed my meeting-the-ghost smile.

"Why would youpresume that?" The fellow looked annoyed, and his Ohio accent made mewonder if I had stupidly mistaken a 21st century cruise passenger for a 20thcentury linksman. But before I could stammer an apology, another tweed-cladwraith stepped out of the fog and gave my hand a vigorous shake.

"GeorgeDuncan," he said in a Scottish accent, "1920 Open title holder andcaptain in 1921 for Great Britain. And this"—he nodded toward the gloweringYank—"is Emmet French, captain of the American side." The first ghostimmediately flashed a grin and poked me in the ribs to let me know he had beenyanking my chain.

Duncan grabbed myarm. "Come along," he said, "the others will be waiting."

The others? I wasbewildered, but I let myself be dragged through a door, along a steel corridorand through another door into a wood-paneled lounge. The bartender looked up aswe came in—he was shaking a cocktail—but Duncan and French steered me into thefirst of several clusters of archaically dressed men engaged in noisy banter.Two dozen or so were standing within reach of a table laden with crackers,sardines and raw oysters, and half as many more sat in leather club chairs,blowing cigar smoke at the pressed-tin ceiling.

"JoshTaylor," Duncan said, leading me up a makeshift receiving line. "TomKerrigan—you remember, he helped found the American PGA?—and this is CharlieHoffner.... The great Ted Ray, he won your National Open in 1920 ... and Iimagine you've met the immortal Harry Vardon." Duncan's wry emphasis ofimmortal caused the six-time British Open champ to blush.

"JamesBraid," chimed in French, clapping the shoulder of a seated gentleman."And this is...."

"We'vemet," I said, cutting him off. I nodded to the brilliantined ghost ofWalter Hagen, who was my dinner guest a couple of years ago when the PGAvisited Chicago.

I turned toDuncan. "I get it. You must be the ghosts of the first Ryder Cup, the onethat was played in Massachusetts in 1927."

Every ghost withinearshot uttered a derisive cheer.

"You've almostgot it right," Duncan said with a sympathetic smile. "We're the ghostsof the two professional team matches that preceded the Ryder Cup."

I must have lookedbaffled. French guided me to an armchair, which five-time Open champ J.H.Taylor graciously vacated. The ghosts made a circle around me, some standing,some sitting on the floor.

"The firstRyder Cup was played in June of 1926, not 1927," Duncan said in a loudvoice, standing behind my chair like the detective in an Agatha Christie novel."It was played near London on the new West course at Wentworth."

"Who won?"came a shout from the far corner of the room. The Brits responded with cheersand laughter, while the Americans hung their heads in mock shame.

French held up ahand for silence. "First of all, we can't count 1926 as an official RyderCup...." He paused while the Brits hooted and whistled. "No, let's befair about this. No trophy was awarded, and planning for the competition wasdisrupted by the labor unrest in Britain. Several of our best players,including Gene Sarazen, had to cancel, and we wound up borrowing four Brits andan Aussie to make up the numbers."

There was morehooting, which Duncan quieted by holding up his arms. "Our American friendhas a point," he said. "We stuck his team with a few weak links, likeTommy over there"—I recognized the Scottish émigré, Tommy Armour, a winnerof Opens on both sides of the Atlantic—"and Jim Barnes"—he pointed toone of the gents on the floor—"who was merely the reigning Openchampion!"

"Hear,hear!" someone shouted. Another fellow, leaning against the bar, raised aglass and bellowed, "Rule, Britannia!"

French shruggedhelplessly. "I'm not saying we'd have won if Sarazen and Bobby Cruickshankand Mac Smith had been able to play. But I don't think we would have lost by... by...." He couldn't bring himself to say it.

Several Britsyelled as one, "Thirteen and a half to one and a half!"

Duncan let thefrivolity die down before addressing me directly. "The outcome of the matchis of no consequence, but we'd like you to set the historical record straight.It has been written that Samuel Ryder attended the matches at Wentworth andcame up with the idea for the Ryder Cup over tea, but Ryder and his brother,James, had, in fact, been talking up the series for a good year or more and hadalready commissioned the trophy. It was the General Strike that caused the Cupto be withheld until the following year at Worcester...."

"Who won?"yelled several Americans at once. There was widespread laughter as the Britishplayers responded by scratching their foreheads and staring at the ceiling. (Ilooked it up a few days later, after we docked in New York. The U.S. won thefirst recognized Ryder Cup by a score of 9 1/2 to 2 1/2.)

I turned in mychair and looked up at Duncan. "But you said there were two transatlanticprofessional matches before the Ryder Cup. What was the other one?"

"Gleneagles," he replied, naming the Scottish estate famous for itsresort hotel and moorland golf courses. "Two 10-man teams met there on June6, 1921—one captained by myself and the other by your Mr. French. It was called"the international challenge match," and it was more or less anappendage to the Glasgow Herald 1,000 Guineas, a big-money tournament thatserved as a run-up to our Open Championship."

I expected someoneto yell, "Who won?" but no one did. Duncan turned to a young man withtousled dark hair and said, "Wild Bill here played for America. He can tellyou more."

WILD BILL had tobe the ghost of Bill Mehlhorn, the Illinois hotshot who won the 1924 WesternOpen and had five top four finishes in the U.S. Open. "Well," Mehlhornsaid, "it's a bit of a sore point for me because everybody said, 'What'sMehlhorn doing on the team?'" There was a ripple of laughter, and a few ofthe ghosts clapped. "But honestly, I think I made the team because I gaveexhibitions and sold subscriptions for Golf Illustrated magazine. See, thecirculation manager was a fellow named Jim Harnett, and he pulled that teamtogether, paid all the expenses and gave each of us a thousand bucks. JockHutchison and Freddie McLeod went, Clarence Hackney, Charles Hoffner, WilfredReid"—Mehlhorn's eyes searched the room for his old teammates, who noddedor raised a hand when named—"myself, George McLean, names you never hear ofnow. Oh, and the Haig." From his chair, Hagen waved a cigar.

"Theidea," Mehlhorn continued, "was that we'd sail over, play atGleneagles, play the British Open and then come home."

"And a fineidea it was!" That opinion came from a Brit on the floor who didn't help meout with a name. (In my own afterlife I will propose compulsory name tags forany large gathering of ghosts.) "It was quite one-sided. We prevailed 9 to3 with three matches halved."

Another Brit,possibly J.H. Taylor, said, "We were quite unimpressed with your JockHutchison. He was 4 up on Duncan late in the game but somehow managed to lose.We were so unimpressed that two weeks later we laid down for him and let himwin the Open at St. Andrews!"

"Aye, but Iwas one 'a th' barrud Yanks," shouted a bow-tied man at the bar. "Howcould I nae win in th' auld gray toon whaur I was born?" There was morelaughter.

"Oh, we gotslaughtered all right," said one of the nameless Americans, referring tothe team match. "Emmet here upset Ray 2 and 1, and McLeod won a point fromTaylor. And Reid! Wilfred got by Havers. But we were 0 for 3 with two halves inthe foursomes. Which, now that I think of it, is pretty much how we Americansplay alternate shot in the age of Tiger Woods!"

Suddenlyremembering why I had booked my passage on the QM2, I looked from face tounfamiliar face. "How did Abe Mitchell do?"

A couple of ghostsstood aside, exposing an elegantly dressed gentleman with a gray moustache anda kindly smile. "I didn't like to do things by halves," he said,"but Duncan and I played Hagen and Hutchison all square in the morning, andthen I halved with Walter in the afternoon. The truth is"—he looked aroundthe room for confirmation—"the challenge match was something of a flop.There weren't many spectators, and our play was far from memorable. And it wasnot yet the luxurious Gleneagles we know and love. The hotel was underconstruction, and the new Kings course was just growing in. The correspondentfor The Times, a chap by the name of Bernard Darwin, wrote that the sand in thebunkers was 'far too gritty and full of shells.' And he was right."

"Trueenough," said Duncan, "but it was a start. So, may I propose atoast?"

"Hair yago," said the ghost of Hutchison, handing me a snifter of brandy.

Duncan raised hisglass to the circle. "To us, the forgotten warriors of Gleneagles andWentworth."

"To us!"The golf ghosts raised their glasses and drank.

"So," saidEmmet French, freshening my brandy from a bottle. "Who do you like atValhalla?"

They all laughed,while I sat there in utter confusion. It would take me hours to get thejoke.

For more of JohnGarrity's ghosts, go to GOLF.com/garrity.

"I IMAGINE YOU'VE MET THE IMMORTAL HARRYVARDON." DUNCAN'S WRY EMPHASIS OF IMMORTAL CAUSED THE SIX-TIME BRITISH OPENCHAMP TO BLUSH.

"WHO WON?" YELLED SEVERAL AMERICANS AT ONCE.THERE WAS WIDESPREAD LAUGHTER AS THE BRITISH PLAYERS RESPONDED BY STARING ATTHE CEILING.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGING: BETTMANN/CORBIS (PLAYERS); FRED VUICH (CUP); ROBERT BECK (BACKGROUND)YANKS ON DECK Buoyantly returning home from the transatlantic voyage that took them to Scotland, the jaunty American side included (clockwise from top left) William Mehlhorn, Thomas Kerrigan, Jock Hutchison, Captain Emmet French, Clarence Hackney, Fred McLeod, George McLean and Charles Hoffner.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)