Origins of The Ryder Cup

The Ryder Cup trophy
Ross Kinnaird /Getty Images
On top of the Ryder Cup stands a tiny likeness of Abe Mitchell, one of the top British professionals of the day and the personal swing guru to Samuel Ryder.

The following is excerpted from Us Against Them: An Oral History of the Ryder Cup, by Robin McMillan.

The original sponsor — it amounted to not much more than donating the trophy — was Samuel Ryder, a businessman who'd made his fortune selling herbs and seeds (although his creation of the Ryder Cup was as much out of love for the game as it was an effort to sell product). Ryder was born in Preston, in the north of England, in 1858. In the 1890s, having moved south to a city outside London called St. Alban's, he and his wife started their own mail-order seed business. They would fill small packets with seeds in their own home, then each Friday would mail the packets along with catalogs from the local post office. Within a decade the Ryders were employing up to 90 people a week.

In 1908, Ryder fell into poor health and, at the urging of a local church minister, decided to take up golf. He began with lessons from a professional who would visit his home, soon graduating to a nine-hole course, and then a year later he joined the Verulam Golf Club in St. Alban's. Two years after that he was appointed club captain.

All this we know from various reports, but how he actually established the Ryder Cup has been the topic of some debate. The matches began in 1927, but a couple of transatlantic team matches came along before it. The first is reported to have taken place at Gleneagles, Scotland, in 1921, but the U.S. team was assembled not to launch the concept of transatlantic team play, but to increase the number of American professionals competing in the British Open. "The plan is to have the American team make its stand at Gleneagles while the American delegation is over for the British Open," wrote the New York Times in February 1921, "and meet the onslaughts of any and all who care to engage them." As it turned out, after seven singles matches and five foursomes, "any and all" won 9-3.

The next contest came in 1926, when Ryder and his brother James suggested that a team match be set up against American professionals who planned to travel to Britain and try to qualify for that year's British Open. The Wentworth Club, just outside London, was chosen because it was close to Sunningdale, one of the qualifying sites. The British team won the matches by the score of 13 1/2 to 1 1/2, but the results did not make it into the record books because the American team included transplanted players born outside the United States — two Scots, two Englishmen, and one Australian. The PGA of America could not possibly have endorsed it. (Furthermore, it wasn't their idea.)

When the actual cup appeared has been the main source of argument. The utterly quaint official story goes that Samuel Ryder was in the gallery at the 1926 matches at Wentworth and became enchanted with the whole concept. He later found himself in the company of several players in the clubhouse and commented, "We must do this again." At the prodding of some players, Ryder agreed to donate a trophy.

Except that if this is true, someone forgot to alert the media. In April 1926, six weeks before Ryder allegedly agreed to pony up a trophy, the Times of London reported that "Mr. S. Ryder, of St. Albans, has presented a trophy for annual competition between teams of British and American professionals. The first match for the trophy is to take place at Wentworth on June 4 and 5." Then, when those dates rolled around, the New York Times reported, "Today, two teams of British and American professionals met each other on the Wentworth course in combat for the first time in the Ryder Cup, presented by Samuel Ryder."

But there was also evidence that the cup did not make an appearance that year. In his book The Ryder Cup, English author Dale Concannon quotes a June 11 issue of British magazine Golf Illustrated that maintains the cup was the victim of a general strike to crippled Britain in May of that year. Ryder, the magazine says, was nervous about the economic situation and therefore decided "to withhold the cup." Why one should have affected the other is not explained, but suspicious minds might conclude that Ryder just didn't have it ready in time.

No matter. When the first real Ryder Cup was held the following year, in Worcester, Massachusetts, the cup was ready and waiting. It was 19 inches high and fashioned from solid gold. Its hallmark read "1927," and on the very top stood a tiny likeness of Abe Mitchell, one of the top British professionals of the day and the personal swing guru to Sam Ryder.

If the British entertained any thought of winning in Worcester — buoyed perhaps by the thrashing they'd administered at Wentworth — it took one day's play to change their minds. Led by captain Walter Hagan, the United States won three of four foursome matches. The following day, the U.S. won six of eight singles matches and halved another. Final score: 9 1/2 - 2 1/2. The British team could have been forgiven had it expressed regret for having shown up.

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