Reed! Rory! Jack! The 10 greatest Ryder Cup matches of all time

September 13, 2016

Every Ryder Cup endures in memory for different reasons, a highlight reel of heartache and heroics from a crucible of pressure unlike any in the game. But as we look ahead to this month in Paris, we’re also looking back through the finest of the footage. Here they are: the 10 greatest Ryder Cup matches of all time.

 

10. JUSTIN LEONARD vs. JOSE MARIA OLAZABAL

The Country Club, Brookline, MA, 1999

You can question the comportment of his stampeding teammates, but there’s no rebuking Leonard’s own performance in the run-up to his epic putt on 17. A long way from his A-game, Leonard scuffled early, only to scrap back from four-down against Olazabal and bring things to all square. Then came his 45-foot breaking bomb — a putt that sealed the deal in an historic comeback — and on came the Americans, trampling the green in a controversial celebration that lives more vividly in memory than Leonard’s gutty demonstration.

9. CHRISTY O’CONNOR JR. vs. FRED COUPLES

The Belfry, England, 1989

In most singles matches that go the distance, we recall the big putts and the painful misses. O’Connor all but ended this one a long way from the green. On the 18th hole, all square with his opponent but a mile behind him in the fairway, O’Connor pulled a 2-iron from 200-plus yards. “If you put him under pressure, I promise you will win the hole,” European captain Tony Jacklin told his man. Prescient comment. O’Connor smoked his approach to three-and-a-half feet, and a rattled Couples, wielding 9-iron, missed the green.

8. SEVE BALLESTEROS vs. FUZZY ZOELLER

PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, 1983

One of golf history’s indelible Seve moments came from a fairway bunker on the 18th hole in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where the Spaniard stood, all-square with Zoeller, needing to halve the hole to halve his match.

This was the era of persimmon headed clubs. But this was also Severiano Ballesteros. Some 245 yards from the green, he grabbed a three-wood made of actual wood and whistled an approach that barely cleared a steep bunker lip and later flew a water hazard that fronted the green. A par for Seve. A half point for his team. U.S captain Jack Nicklaus called it the greatest shot he had ever seen.

7. PHIL MICKELSON vs. SERGIO GARCIA

Hazeltine, Chaska, Minn., 2016

Let’s do the numbers. Lefty notched 10 birdies and shot a 63, despite a three-putt. Garcia matched his opponent’s nine under, but he did so without a bogey. Their better-ball score would have been a 58. It ended, fittingly, with a pair of birdies on 18 — a bloodless bomb from Phil, followed by a steely respuesta from the Spaniard. Both men played so beautifully, it would have been a shame for either to lose. As it happened, neither did.

6. EAMON DARCY vs. BEN CRENSHAW

Muirfield Village, Dublin, OH, 1987

In an early-round burst of frustration, Gentle Ben was less than gentle with his putter, snapping the traitorous club on the 6th green. But on he played, relying on a three-iron as a substitute putter, and wielding it well enough to push the match to 18, where Darcy won with a nervy 8-foot putt.

It was Darcy’s first victory in 10 Ryder Cup matches, and it helped give Europe its first win on American soil. Did Darcy have any doubt that he’d drain the clincher? No, he said after, “But if it missed, I wasn’t sure I would hole the one back.”

5. HALE IRWIN vs. BERNHARD LANGER

The Ocean Course, Kiawah Island, SC, 1991

Any lingering doubts that Ryder Cup had grown into a seriously knee-rattling affair faded with the anchor match on Sunday, as two of the game’s steeliest competitors staggered from the pressure down the stretch.

All square on 18, Irwin caught a break when his errant drive caromed off a spectator and back into the short grass. But Langer still had a chance to beat him with a five-footer for all the marbles, a par putt that went just wide. Pandemonium erupted on the U.S. side, ending what became known as the War by the Shore, an event emblematic of the bloodless battle that the once friendly competition had become.

4. NICK FALDO vs. CURTIS STRANGE

Oak Hill Country Club, Rochester, NY, 1995

The two men had dueled famously once before, in an 18-hole playoff at the 1988 U.S. Open. In that match, Strange had walked away the winner, but by 1995, the old swagger had left his step. A captain’s pick, he was battling both a flawed swing and the winningest player in Ryder Cup history.

Still, Strange was 1 up heading into 16; a par on any of the final three holes would have done it for him. It was not to be. All square on 18, Strange split the fairway and Faldo found the trees. But the Englishman scratched out a par as Strange fanned an iron on his approach and made a bogey. The Americans also lost the two next matches, giving the Europeans an upset win.

3. PAUL AZINGER vs. NICK FALDO

The Belfry, England, 1993

On the face of it, they came off as polar opposites — the emotive Yank and the stoic English grinder. But in their will to win, they were more like kin.

Those contrasts and commonalities, so clearly on display in their final-round battle at the ’87 British Open, sprang to the fore once more in their Sunday tête-à-tête at The Belfry, where each man played according to type: Faldo with icy, relentless resolve; Azinger with fearless fire.

When Faldo aced the 14th to go one-up, it appeared the match was destined to fall in his favor, but Azinger, undaunted, birdied the next hole to quiet the home crowd, then birdied the 18th to ensure a half.

Though their match was over, their rivalry lived on, extending, notably, to the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla, where they met as opposing captains. In the run-up to the event, which the Americans won, the news was filled with stories of bad blood between them. For the most part, the contentiousness seemed playful and publicity-minded, but deep down you got the sense that a good deal of it was real.

2. JACK NICKLAUS vs. TONY JACKLIN

Royal Birkdale, England, 1969

The fierce rivalry we know today was meant to be a friendly exhibition, a fact not lost on Nicklaus in the final singles match in 1969. With the team score deadlocked going into the day, and their deciding match all-square on 18, Nicklaus conceded Jacklin a testy two-footer, ensuring that the competition ended in a tie.

His generous act of sportsmanship came off as all the grander in the context of a week that began in petty fashion when Great Britain & Ireland captain Eric Brown instructed his players not to help their opponents hunt for lost balls in the rough. Nicklaus rose above that. “I don’t think you would have missed that, Tony,” Jack told Jacklin afterward. “But I didn’t want to give you the chance.”

1. PATRICK REED vs. RORY MCILROY

Hazeltine, Chaska, Minn., 2016

If the Ryder Cup is theater, this was the production that had it all. Breathlessly hyped — a head-to-head between each team’s hottest player — it blew away its billing as the two stars took turns owning the stage.

The first moment went to Rory, who birdied the 3rd to go 1 up. But Reed responded on the short par-4 5th, with a driver to eight feet and a dramatic eagle. Pandemonium. Playing to the crowd, Reed pumped two fists into the autumn air. This was the start of an electric four-hole stretch during which McIlroy went birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie and yet somehow managed to lose his lead.

Along the way, there were flamboyant gestures straight out of Stanislavsky — Reed bowing ironically; Rory cupping his ears and mouthing ‘I can’t hear you’ — but none more memorable than on the par-3 8th, where Reed, having parried an astonishing birdie with one of his own, wagged his finger at Rory. The unspoken message: not so fast.

The performance slagged just slightly in the second act, the back-nine, but only relatively so; there was no way two mortals could maintain the front-nine pace. As if on script, it came down to 18, where both players stuffed approaches, but Reed, leading 1 up, made McIlroy’s putt irrelevant by draining his. Curtains for Rory. A curtain call for Reed. And plenty of applause earned all around.

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