The longest four days in golf are here. By that I mean the prelude to the Ryder Cup, which starts Friday Sept. 25th. Most tournaments begin on Thursday. The Presidents Cup goes from Thursday through Sunday. The Ryder Cup is different. The Ryder Cup stands alone. The four day run-up starts Monday of Ryder Cup week and lasts longer than the three days of the event itself. I first attended the Ryder Cup in 1987, when it was held at the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, the course that Jack Nicklaus designed and which hosts the annual Memorial Tournament.
It didn’t take long to appreciate that the Ryder Cup had hit unprecedented heights of excitement and passion. Europeans, especially British fans, had come over in great numbers. Eight fellows from Aberdeen University had come across. Archie Baird, a friend, a man about golf and a member at Gullane and Muirfield in East Lothian, Scotland, was there. Archie, a veterinarian, knows golf. I’d been in his home in Aberlady, a village just west of Muirfield, and seen his amazing collection of golf art. He’d established a golf museum beside the first tee at Gullane #1, the best of the club’s three courses.
“This is the real golf,” Archie said as we followed the Friday foursomes, or alternate-shot matches. “Every shot is significant, instead of just the last half-hour.”
Archie was not too impressed at the knowledge American supporters had of match-play golf. He’d overhead a fellow asking why one player had picked up his ball on the green. The answer should have been obvious. The hole had been conceded.
“The level of ignorance is amazing,” Archie, never a man to mince words, said. I remember a match playing with him once at Gullane; or maybe it was against him. In any case, I hit a poor shot when the hole was there for me to win.
“Rubenstein, you clown,” Archie bellowed. I think golfers across the links could have heard him.
We were watching Seve Ballesteros and Jose-Maria Olazabal in their foursomes match, the last of the morning. Olazabal, of course, is the European captain this week. They were playing Payne Stewart and Larry Nelson. It’s sad to think that Stewart and Ballesteros are gone now. Ballesteros almost holed a bunker shot on the seventh. He hit a beautiful drive on the ninth.
“Gorgeous,” I wrote in my notebook. “What timing.”
The teams were even with four holes to play. U.S. team member Ben Crenshaw was following the match, along with team captain Nicklaus, wearing a red windbreaker and carrying a walkie-talkie. The 15th was then a 490-yard par-five (do you remember when a par-five could be only 490 yards? A hole of that length is almost always a par-four today).
Olazabal holed a birdie putt from 18-feet above the hole. The Europeans went one-up and maintained that lead to the 18th hole. Ballesteros and Olazabal were on the green in regulation. The U.S. team would need to birdie the hole to send the match to extra holes. The partisan U.S. crowd gave the Europeans a nice hand as they walked up to the final green.
Ballesteros lifted Olazabal’s arm as if in victory, or at least that’s how I saw the gesture. “A bit premature?” I asked in my notes.
Nelson had to play from deep rough beside the green, and hit a terrific pitch shot within three feet of the hole. Olazabal was putting over a ridge and down to another level. He aimed well left and the ball finished five feet from the hole. Ballesteros had that for the win. Olazabal couldn’t look.
Ballesteros made the putt. He and Olazabal embraced. The European captain Tony Jacklin came over to congratulate his team. Nicklaus was there as well. “Nice going,” he said. The morning foursomes ended 2-2.
Come the Sunday singles, the students from Aberdeen University wore T-shirts that said “Aimin’ Darcy” and “Wizard Woosie,” for European team members Eamonn Darcy and Ian Woosnam. U.S. fans were doing their part by making a lot of noise for their players. Somebody spotted Nicklaus and asked, “Is this loud enough, Jack? Is this loud enough?”
The Europeans won, the first time they’d taken the Ryder Cup in the U.S. Their team went into a spontaneous dance on the 18th green as the Ohio State University marching band played. European members Gordon Brand Jr. and Sam Torrance grabbed a Scottish flag from a fan on the clubhouse balcony. Woosnam, a Welshman, held a flag from his home country.
The European fans chanted, “Eur-up, Eur-up, Eur-up,” and the players started clapping. Jacklin brought out a bottle of champagne. I wrote in my book, “Europe owns the 18th green on Jack’s home course.” Ballesteros sprayed the European team “with a wild grin on his face. Fans chanted, “We want a drink, we want a drink.”
In my Globe column, dated Sept. 28th, 1987, I led with the following two paragraphs.
“The Ryder Cup came of age yesterday, after 60 years. Europe’s win showed that golf in its natural state is a world game, and underneath its cool exteriors, a most deeply felt experience for all participants.
“What a week of golf it was. U.S. fans carried 10,000 flags and U.S. players’ wives led cheers as their men went off the first tee. Three thousands British visitors were solidly behind their golfers and, at the end, two hours after the Europeans had won, they were still singing their praises.”
Olazabal had completed his first Ryder Cup, only three years after winning the British Amateur. He immediately became a Ryder Cup enthusiast. It’s fair to say that the Ryder Cup has meant at least as much to him as his two Masters wins, and probably more. And now he is European’s captain.
“That ’87 Ryder Cup really was very special for me and it made me realize how special the event was, and I fell in love with it straight away,” Olazabal told CNN’s Gary Morley.
Olazabal was talking about an event that happened a quarter-century ago, but that remains fixed in his mind as a transformative event. If the Ryder Cup came of age that September of 1987, it has since become one of the sporting world’s most anticipated events. Here comes the Ryder Cup at the Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Ill. We wait. We can’t wait.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein