[This article first appeared in the September 29, 1969, issue of Sports Illustrated.]
The biennial Ryder Cup matches have long been one of those neglected waifs of international sport, more of a diplomatic hands-across-the-sea ritual that the golfing Establishment loves to croon over than a hot-blooded athletic event. A team of rich pros off the high-powered U.S. golf tour takes on a bunch of poor boys from Great Britain and Ireland at their own crazy match-play game—two-ball, four-ball, better-ball foursomes, a niblick into the corner bunker sort of thing—knocks them flat, picks them up, brushes off the dust and then invites them all to try again in another two years. Goodwill stuff. Mutual understanding.
But last week at the Royal Birkdale course in the English seaside resort of Southport the familiar pattern got itself badly garbled. At the climax of three days of sunshine, wind, rain and stormy golf by the British, there stood Jack Nicklaus, America’s superpro, his face drawn by the strain of a furious match with British Open Champion Tony Jacklin, his sun-bleached hair blown askew across a furrowed forehead, hunching over a putt of five feet on the final hole of the very final match that would determine the result of three days of eyeball-to-eyeball golf.
“I was terrified,” said Nicklaus. “I wasn’t just putting for me, I was putting for my country.”
Terrified or not, Nicklaus got the putt into the hole to halve his match with Jacklin and create the first tie in 42 years of Ryder Cup history, 16 points to 16 points. The standoff permitted the 12-man U.S. team to retain the two-foot cup it has won 14 times in 18 attempts since 1927, but the boys went back to their lucrative tour needing a bit of dusting off themselves this time, and the quality of golf in Britain had taken on new luster.
The Redcoats did not exactly ambush the Americans. For a year there have been rumblings that the British were at last developing pros of international stature—a view that took on real substance when the 25-year-old Jacklin, a high-spirited, vigorous competitor who has become a successful regular on the U.S. tour, won the British Open. Youth was served, in addition, by the presence of Peter Townsend, an ebullient, long hitter of 22, who is also on the U.S. tour, and Bernard Gallacher, a Scot who at 20 is the youngest golfer ever to play in the Ryder Cup and—perhaps because of his age and inexperience—the cockiest. “He’s some kind of arrogant,” muttered a U.S. pro after talking to Gallacher for the first time. “I’m not awed by the Americans,” said Gallacher, who has won two tournaments in Britain this year and been runner-up in four. “I think maybe they should be awed by me.”
Faced with this kind of competitive steam, the U.S. players felt they were going to have to work to win. “The British are so keyed up they’ll be hitting the ball nine million miles,” said Frank Beard, whose steady nerve and compact golf swing has earned $160,000 this year, tops on the U.S. tour. “And we don’t dare go back home if we lose.”
A final hazard in the path of a routine U.S. victory was the fact that the Professional Golfers’ Association of America had named Sam Snead as the team’s nonplaying captain. There is no doubt that Snead has had a long and honorable competitive career. He is, at 57, still a wonder of a golfer. But he also can be a crude, sullen, cantankerous old buzzard, and he is about as capable of leadership as Ebenezer Scrooge. Snead’s relationship with the majority of U.S. tournament players has long been one of mutual animosity. He was the only player of any reputation to side with the PGA in its administrative squabble with the touring pros.
The 12 players who went to Southport last week had won 20 tournaments between them this year and a massive $1,250,000 in prize money. They did not need coddling. But 10 of them had never appeared in a Ryder Cup, and for the most part they were unfamiliar with its strange forms of match play. Besides, someone had to pick the most effective eight starters twice each day, and a few of Sam’s lineups must have brought joy to British Captain Eric Brown.
On the first morning Gene Littler, having a fine year on the tour and, with Casper, the only Ryder Cup veteran, was a notable nonstarter. So was Jack Nicklaus, who had played for years in international matches of various sorts. Nicklaus had looked impressively solid in practice rounds and was shocked at being benched. Somebody kidded him about being through at the age of 29. “Yeah. I’m through,” Jack said, “if being 12 under par for my last 27 holes in practice means being through.”
The first day went to the British 4½-3½, and after the morning of the second day the U.S. team had fallen behind six matches to four, with two matches halved, and obviously needed all the help it could get. The team of Nicklaus and Dan Sikes had barely lost a birdie-filled match to Jacklin and Neil Coles that went to the last hole and had shot a fine best-ball score of 66, eight under par. But they were dropped by Snead from the afternoon lineup. “Everyone’s trying damned hard,” said a member of the U.S. delegation, “but you could say that team morale is just about zero.”
It was a bad time for zero morale. Fortunately, the U.S. had two players, Lee Trevino and Dave Hill, who couldn’t care if they were being led by Sam Snead or Shirley Temple. They infected their teammates with new serve just by the way they hurled themselves into each shot. Also doing his part was the quiet Littler, who said almost nothing and was allowed to compete in only three of a possible six matches. Littler was on the winning end of the handshake each time, and in the end the three of them—Littler, Hill and Trevino—produced eight of America’s 13 victories.
After the second day of play the score was tied 8-8, with 16 singles matches to go. The morning rounds on the final day gave the British a 13-11 lead and high hopes, for among other things Jacklin had crushed Nicklaus 4 and 3. But by late in the afternoon the U.S. had fought back again to a 15-15 tie, with only two matches still in contention.
Now a strong west wind, carrying a light rain, began blowing in off the sea—the first bad weather of the matches—and under these treacherous conditions America’s golfing reputation rode on the slightly frayed skills of Billy Casper, all even after 16 holes in a match with Brian Huggett; and on Nicklaus, all even after 15 holes in another confrontation with Jacklin.
The final holes won’t soon be forgotten by either the oh-so-anxious British or the we’ll-never-be-able-to-go-home-again Americans. On the 510-yard 17th, both Huggett and Casper hit their second shots over the green. Casper chipped stiff for a birdie, but Huggett had to hole a five-footer to stay even. He crouched over the ball for an eternity and then punched it into the cup. The two moved on to 18, where Casper got his par but Huggett left himself a four-footer to tie the match. Again he stood transfixed over the ball, when suddenly there was a resounding roar from the 17th green. “My God,” Huggett thought, “Tony has beaten Nicklaus. If I sink this putt we win the Ryder Cup.” Slowly, carefully, he made his putt. Brian Huggett is a 32-year-old worried, weathered Welshman. He has been a golf professional for 16 years. He walked over to Eric Brown, leaned against his shoulder and began to cry.
But Huggett had misread the shout from the 17th green. Instead of being even, Jacklin had lost 16 to go one down. On 17 Nicklaus hit two excellent shots, leaving himself only a 15-footer for an eagle. Jacklin pushed an indifferent second shot off to the right, and British hopes seemed ended as the ball headed for the willow scrub. But by a sudden thrust of luck the ball caromed off a slope and onto the green some 50 feet from the hole.
Jacklin swung his putter firmly and sent the long putt on its way, skidding across the rolls and breaks—and in. An eagle. That caused the enormous cheer that Huggett had heard. Shaken, Nicklaus missed his putt, and the match was tied again.
Nicklaus and Jacklin were both nicely on 18 in two, but after Jacklin insured his par Nicklaus hit his first putt five feet past the hole. Despite the crowd of 8,000 jamming around the green, the silence was so complete that the unvoiced prayer for a miss was like a wave of heat. Nicklaus sank the putt and saved the tie. His stroke saved the cup, too, but America’s reputation as unbeatable was beyond rescue. The Ryder Cup is a sports event again.