From mismatch to glory: A short history of the Ryder Cup since 1981

Forty years ago the Ryder Cup was struggling to find sponsorship, this week it will once again be the focus of the sporting world’s attention.

The Ryder Cup of the 1970s was frankly something of a joke.

If you need proof, consider that in 1971 the Great Britain and Ireland captain Eric Brown led a sing song on the place home to celebrate defeat (in mitigation, the narrowest defeat in history).

By 1977 even the Americans wanted a better fight. Tom Wesikopf, for example, had opted to go fishing instead of join his countrymen in yet another easy win on foreign soil.

Europeans entered the fray in 1979, but there was little immediate change - another straightforward success for the Americans.

But change did come, albeit slowly.

At the start of the 1980s interest was waning, but by the end of that decade the Ryder Cup was on course to be in the situation it is today - one of the world's greatest sporting events, amassing enormous viewing figures and generating astonishing sponsorship deals.

Let's see how much it has changed as Padraig Harrington and Steve Stricker prepare for this year's match.


Europe might have become involved in the match two years previously, but the chaos of the 1970s was lingering and Seve Ballesteros was not selected as the US murdered Europe 18.5-9.5.

What was the exact state of the match? In his book 'Ryder Cup Revealed' Ross Biddiscombe writes: "Sponsorship prospects looked so bad at one stage that the best offers on the table consisted of £80,000 worth of cigarette coupons or £100,000 Green Shield stamps."


Another gem from Biddiscombe reveals that the match was still not out of the 1970s woods: "Roone Arledge, the president of ABC Sports at the time, is reported to have made a rather unusual offer to the PGA of America: he wanted to pay them back $1 million in order that he did not have to broadcast the Ryder Cup from PGA National."

It half explains why there is no footage of what many believe was Ballesteros' greatest ever shot, a fairway wood from a bunker. New captain Tony Jacklin had tempted him back, Europe threatened to win ahead of ultimate defeat, but the fire in the Spaniard's belly had been stoked.


Breakthrough at the Belfry. The near-miss in 1983 had proved inspirational because now the team as well, as Ballesteros and Jacklin, believed victory was possible.

Big doors swing on small hinges: midway through the match Craig Stadler missed a tiddler on the 18th hole and with it the momentum of the match switched inexorably. Giddy scenes as Sam Torrance holed the winning putt.


Jose Maria Olazabal joined Ballesteros to form one of, if not the greatest, Ryder Cup partnership of them all.

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Jack Nicklaus captained and hosted at Muirfield Village, yet it was not a happy week for him. He order thousands of flags midway through the match to drum up the sedate galleries, he bemoaned that his team was money-focussed, and oversaw a first American defeat on homesoil.


Not quite 1985 revisited, but another golden week at the Belfry and an astonishing final day in which the Americans repeatedly hit their tee shot at the 18th into the water.

That hole also witnessed Christy O'Connor's sensational 2-iron, a shot that prompted delirium. When victory was assured, he looked to the skies and opened his arms. With his white grey hair and pot belly many of us continue to think of it as one of the great triumphs for middle-aged man.

But he was 41 (forty one). The match was tied.


In one sense The War on the Shore was madness, the American team utilising the first Gulf War as motivation.

In another, the European renaissance would have meant nothing if the American response was apathy. Victory was proof that they really did give a damn.


Back to the Belfry and, incredibly, the first Ryder Cup to be televised live in the US (they really were starting to give a damn). They also retained the trophy, overpowering the home team late in the Sunday singles.


Heading into the singles European captain Bernard Gallacher was looking at a third consecutive defeat as his team trailed 7-9. But the Europeans bucked their trend of singles weakness to complete an epic fightback that left Ballesteros and Faldo sobbing in each other's arms, and Philip Walton emulated Eamonn Darcy (in 1987) and O'Connor Jr in becoming an unlikely but legendary Irish Ryder Cup hero.

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Folk like to sniff at the fact that Tiger Woods has never quite got to grips with the Ryder Cup; it's less often noted that his introduction to it was so insane.

The match started with the European team facing litigation when Miguel Angel Martin was effectively de-selected, the entire week was defined by Ballesteros' madcap captaincy, it ended with the players admitting they won it not only for, but also in spite, of their great hero.


Another case of the Americans appalling many, yet also proving that this thing did mean something to them, celebrating victory with a mass party on the 17th green that overlooked the small matter that victory was not yet assured and Olazabal still had a putt on that very green. Astonishing shenanigans.

Also a week when European captain Mark James didn't play three of his team until the singles and selected seven of them to play all five sessions. Between them, those 10 (knackered or demoralised) landed two points on Sunday.


More Ryder Cup glory at the Belfry for European captain Sam Torrance whose first master stroke was to send Colin Montgomerie as leader in the singles when the match was tied 8-8. He set the tone with a 5&4 thumping of Scott Hoch.

Torrance also put his arm around the shoulders of the new boys, rather than pack them in a cupboard until Sunday. He asked for miracles at the back-end of the singles and they delivered, never more brilliantly than when Philip Price defeated Phil Mickelson, his nostril-flaring celebration sill awaiting the plaque it deserves on the 16th green.


Hal Sutton wore a 10-gallon stetson like a comedy cowboy, Bernhard Langer just quietly collected points. Lots of them. Europe led by three after the first morning, by five at the end of day one, by six ahead of the singles, and by nine at the end of the week. Not so much a match as a dissection.


Emotional scenes in Ireland as Darren Clarke took his place on the team, and won three points from three matches, just weeks after the death of his wife Heather. Ian Woosnam oversaw a repeat of the 2004 scoreline.

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Paul Azinger captained with pride and savvy. He called on all his patriotism and also introduced a pod system, seeking to ape the natural friendship and national groupings of the Europeans.

It worked a treat. Boo Weekley rode an imaginary horse through Nick Faldo's captaincy as America prevailed by five.


The week got lucky. A tight finish, in which Europe regained the Cup, meant that the appalling weather made the story rather than became it. Inside the ropes it was wet, outside the ropes it was mud. Absurd mud. Monty didn't care though. He ruled Celtic Manor.


Deep in the second session on Saturday Europe trailed 10-4. If this were boxing the referee was ready to step in, the cornermen had towels in their hands. But Ian Poulter was having none of it. He grabbed the match by the scruff of its neck, helped Europe end the day 6-10 down, then entered the team room and told everyone they could still win it.

Europe did: The Miracle of Medinah.

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The year that Ryder Cup dynamics jumped the shark. Paul McGinley introduced a goldfish bowl to the European team room and Tom Watson told the American team he didn't want the present they'd bought him. McGinley was baffled by Victor Dubuisson but worked him out, Watson was baffled by his team, never worked them out and they told everyone about it in the aftermath of another defeat.


One of the great Ryder Cup moments, but not one of the great matches. Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy at the eighth in the singles was just, well, this good:

But even they admit their tussle petered out after that high. The match was vindication of Davis Love III's excellent captaincy. Four years earlier he had been a bit unlucky at Medinah, this time he got the win he deserved.


Golf National proved to be the greatest Ryder Cup stage, with the mounding around the greens and tees providing astonishing scenes across the course. Paris was maybe a little less involved in the match, but one of the great Ryder Cup moments occurred in the heart of the city the morning after Europe's sensational win - when Francesco Molinari, who had won five points, was serenaded to his train home by the European fans at Gare du Nord.

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It's all a long, long way from the 1970s.

READ MORE: Ian Poulter: The Postman's best Ryder Cup quotes

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