The dark days of the Ryder Cup are over – let battle commence

Opinion

NCG columnist Colin Callander reflects on how the Ryder Cup has changed in the last 30 years and how Le Golf National is the perfect venue for the biennial clash between Europe and the US

It is now 37 years since America’s strongest-ever Ryder Cup team crossed the Atlantic to play Europe in the Ryder Cup at Walton Heath.

The 1981 team – headed by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller and featuring no fewer than 11 major champions – was chasing its 10th win in 11 matches, so it came as no surprise whatsoever when they secured a substantial 18½–9½ victory.

Back at the start of the 1980s the Ryder Cup had become equally as predicable as the modern Scottish Premiership but what we did not know at the time was that things were about to change.

Seve Ballesteros was not part of the ’81 European team as a result of a dispute with the authorities over appearance money, but he was back in harness two years later at West Palm Beach where his unique skill set, plus the inspired captaincy of Tony Jacklin, were just two of the factors which led to the Europeans coming within a shot or two of upsetting the hosts and winning the match for the first time since 1957.

That night, Ballesteros implored his teammates not to be upset by the result on the basis that they knew now they could beat the Americans and he was proved to be correct.

Two years later Europe won at The Belfry and then again for the first time on US soil in 1987 at Muirfield Village at the start of a run that has subsequently seen the underdogs beat the once invincible Americans in 10 out of the last 16 matches.

Looking back now, it is hard to believe that a match which was dead on its feet back in 1970s and early ’80s has now become one of the hottest tickets in world sport.

In 1983, I was part of a crowd of no more than about 1,500 people who watched Ballesteros play what US captain Jack Nicklaus described as the best shot he had ever seen to salvage a halve in his singles against Fuzzy Zoeller.

This year, the denouement in Paris will be watched by a sell-out crowd and by worldwide TV audience measured in millions.

That is quite a contrast and there is no doubt one of the major reasons for the transformation was the inspired decision back in 1979 to extend what hitherto had been a GB&I team to include players from the Continent of Europe.

That was the catalyst for change and it has been greatly enhanced by the way in which the golfing map has subsequently expanded, both within Europe and elsewhere.

The Americans are still dominant in terms of sheer numbers and half of the world’s top 50 are American, but that number is likely to diminish further as the internationalisation of the game continues and more new golfing markets are opened up.

It is against this background that this year’s match at Le Golf National will start on September 28 and I for one can’t wait.

US captain, Jim Furyk, has already stated he believes Europe will field a stronger side than ever before and any US team featuring the likes of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and the ultra-combative Patrick Reed can never be underestimated either. It is going to be a battle between golfing goliaths and what makes it even more enticing is the venue.

In the modern era the Ryder Cup has frequently gone to the highest bidder. That is exactly what has happened again this time but by happy coincidence it has also arrived at a course which could not be more suited to the purpose.

There is no doubt that this spectacular course, built on a rubbish tip 45 minutes from the centre of Paris, is among Europe’s best and it features a finishing stretch which will produce great drama and almost certainly will heavily influence the outcome of the match.

It is a beguiling prospect and all very different to the dark days three decades ago.

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