This article first appeared in the October 24, 1983, issue of Sports Illustrated.
An inspired bunch of British and European golfers put new meaning into the old Ryder Cup matches last week in humid, soggy Palm Beach Gardens , Fla. , where they gave non-playing Captain Jack Nicklaus and his team of American pros the biggest scare of their double-knit lives. After three days of dead-even match-play combat, the Americans only hung on to their supreme reputations because of a gutsy last-minute wedge shot by Lanny Wadkins and a blown three-foot putt by the normally dependable Scot, Bernard Gallacher.
Those developments, finishing up the last two of Sunday’s 12 one-on-one battles on the PGA National course, allowed the U.S., which going in had a 20-3-1 Ryder Cup record, to survive by the ungolflike score of 14 1/2 – 13 1/2. Had it gone the other way at the end, Nicklaus would have been the first U.S. captain not to win on home soil since biennial Ryder Cup play began in 1927.
After two days of foursome (alternate shots) and four-ball (best ball) matches, the teams went into Sunday’s action tied at eight points each, and this in itself was a surprise. There hadn’t been a real challenge to the U.S. since the 1969 tie at Royal Birkdale, and the last American loss was at Lindrick back in ’57.
The possibility of a loss was very much on Nicklaus’ mind before the final matches. Stars had already begun to emerge for Captain Tony Jacklin’s European team—Severiano Ballesteros of Spain, Bernhard Langer of West Germany, and England’s Nick Faldo and Paul Way, 20.
Meanwhile, Nicklaus’ team was both ailing and disappointing, except for Tom Watson, who had been on the winning side in three of his four partnership duels. Tom Kite was fighting the flu, Fuzzy Zoeller had a bad back and Raymond Floyd was playing dismally.
What Nicklaus told his stalwarts before he sent them out on Sunday was more in the tradition of Knute Rockne than Harry Vardon . “I will not” he said, “be the first captain to blow this thing. Now you guys show me some brass.”
For the final round, Nicklaus and Jacklin were each required to list their golfers in a one to 12 playing order without knowing what the other side was up to. As it happened, Jacklin went for offense, while Nicklaus opted for defense. Jacklin led with his big guns—Ballesteros, Faldo and Langer—hoping to put points on the board early. Nicklaus put what he considered his strength at the bottom, figuring that Wadkins, Floyd and Watson, in the 10th, 11th and 12th positions, would take care of business if it needed to be taken care of in the final minutes.
As it turned out, the Europeans did score their early points—they led in six matches and were all even in two others through nine holes—and Nicklaus wound up with Wadkins and Watson in exactly the spots where he would need them the most. Floyd, alas, continued his troubles, as he was buried by Ken Brown of England 4 and 3. The draw put Zoeller against Ballesteros in the first match of the day, which also turned out to be the best one. Ballesteros birdied four straight holes and was 3-up after 11, but Zoeller proceeded to win the next four holes with two birdies and two pars. Ballesteros birdied 16, they both parred 17, and thus they were even coming to the par-5 18th. Both drove poorly and had to gouge out of the Bermuda rough. Zoeller drilled a two-iron into the wind, needing to carry what looked like all the sand in Florida. Ballesteros’ shot was more formidable—a 245-yard three-wood from a bunker with an eight-foot rise directly in front of it. Zoeller hit the green, and Ballesteros somehow reached the left apron. Zoeller two-putted for par; Ballesteros chipped and had to stare in a four-footer to halve the match. Zoeller’s half-point “upset” became enormously important as the day wore on. After the match he said, “When Jack told me last night I had to play Seve, I took so many pills I’m glad they don’t have drug tests for golfers.”
The rest of the singles wars then unfolded in the following order: Faldo dusted off Jay Haas 2 and 1, and the Europeans led by a point. Ben Crenshaw whipped Sandy Lyle 3 and 1, and the score was tied again. Next came Langer ‘s 2-up victory over Gil Morgan, and Jacklin’s forces were on top once more. Bob Gilder outlasted Gordon Brand, 2-up, and Calvin Peete took a one-up thriller from Brian Waites. Now the U.S. led, but Way finished Curtis Strange 2 and 1. Then came Craig Stadler’s 3 and 2 win over Ian Woosnam of Wales, which was quickly followed by Brown’s handling of Floyd . There were now only three matches left on the course, the score stood at 12 1/2 – 12 1/2, and Captain Nicklaus was going crazy, driving around in his golf cart with his walkie-talkie pressed to his ear, trying to keep up with it all.
“It’s the first tournament I’ve ever been to when I wasn’t playing and couldn’t do anything about what was happening,” said Nicklaus afterward. “This was the damndest thing I was ever involved in.”
Things looked woeful for the Americans when Sam Torrance hit a marvelous pitch at the 18th for a birdie to halve his match with Kite. At that moment it seemed that the contest would end in a 14-14 tie; Watson was 2-up on Gallacher at the 16th hole, while Wadkins was one-down to Spain’s Jose-Maria Canizares with one hole to play. The U.S. had a tiny edge though—Wadkins. He had fought back from 3-down, and if he could win the final hole to halve his match, that would do it—for Watson ‘s win over Gallacher seemed assured.
Most of the American players and their wives were out on the 18th fairway to watch Wadkins strike two fine woods and position himself for an 80-yard wedge shot to a pin sitting behind a yawning bunker. Wadkins was the perfect guy for an occasion like this: cocky, a gambler, a thriver on pressure. He almost holed the shot, and his teammates swarmed over him as if he’d kicked a winning field goal with no time remaining. But behind them all, Watson bogied 16 and then 17. If Gallacher had managed even a bogey on 17, they would have gone to the final green with as much golf drama in the air as anyone could ever hope to witness. But Gallacher butchered the 17th worse than Watson had, and the competition officially ended there with Gallacher’s double bogey and Watson’s 2 and 1 win.
But it was truly won for the Americans with Wadkins’ flawless wedge moments earlier, followed by Nicklaus’ sigh of relief, by the captain’s embrace of Wadkins, by Wadkins saying, “It was only the most important shot of my life, Jack. There’s nobody I’d rather have hit it for.”
To which Nicklaus said, “Lanny, that little son of a gun. He needs a wheelbarrow to carry his brass around.”