At lunchtime on each of the first two days of the Ryder Cup golf matches last weekend it looked as if there might be some suspense over the outcome. Just the suspicion of doubt provided a mild trauma for U.S. golf, in view of the lopsided results of this series throughout most of its 37-year history. Actually, if play had been called on account of rain after the morning rounds on each of the three days, the British team would have come out with a tie. But as soon as the sun moved overhead in the sky above Atlanta, Captain Arnold Palmer and his nine teammates became unbeatable. The British did not win even one afternoon match, although Brian Huggett and Dave Thomas did manage to halve with Bob Goalby and Dave Ragan on Saturday, and Peter Alliss drew with Tony Lema on Sunday. As a result, the final score on Sunday evening was, from the British point of view, slightly cataclysmic—23 to 9.
Out on the beautifully gardened fairways of the East Lake Country Club, the difference in the skills of the British and American professionals hardly seemed that extreme. Of the 24 matches played during the first 2� days, 13 went the full distance of 18 holes. The British won four of these and halved five more.
Despite the antemeridian flurries of the British, there was a great deal of speculation all weekend around the East Lake club about why the visitors did not do better. They were not conspicuously outdriven except in the case of their Tom Haliburton, who is 48 years old, and they were, on the whole, just as straight with their woods and long irons.
The American players generously suggested that the major difference between the two teams was in the size of their golf balls. The British elected to use their smaller ball, believing they would not have sufficient time to adjust to the larger American ball, and they discovered with pleasure that their own ball could be easily played off the carpetlike fairways of East Lake. "But around the greens," observed Bill Casper Jr., who played some of the finest golf of his career for the home side, "the British ball is a handicap. It sinks deeper into the Bermuda rough here, while our ball sits on top of the rough. They just can't control their chipping as well as we can, and their ball is harder to putt, too."
Another very obvious failure of the British ball was its inability to grip the greens on an approach shot. In Britain this makes no difference, for the pitch-and-run is the standard approach to the hard British greens, which rarely receive any artificial watering. The greens at East Lake, however, had the softness of most American greens, and our professionals were able to strike their approaches right at the pins, knowing that the backspin on the American ball would bite and hold.
"We really lost the matches on the putting greens," concluded John Fallon, the Scotsman who served the British as nonplaying captain. "On balance, all our chaps played well, just about as well as yours, I would say, but they putted very badly. Your chaps made ours look stupid on the greens. Of course, we aren't accustomed to this bent grass, which has a very distinct grain to it, and I'm sure that if we had putted as well as your chaps it would have been a very tight match all the way."
Yet that was only part of the story. The American pros play tournament golf from the beginning of the year to the end. The British tournament season is barely six months long. The additional competition on this side of the ocean teaches the Americans how to get the ball in the hole even when they are not playing their best golf. This was enough of an advantage to swing the balance to the Americans in those early matches that might have gone either way.
The format of this year's Ryder Cup meeting, whose scene alternates every two years between Britain and the U.S., was considerably different from the past. It used to be a two-day event—the first devoted to four 36-hole foursome (alternate shot) matches, the second to eight 36-hole singles matches for a combined total of 12 points. The first change in this classic formula came two years ago at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, when all the matches were reduced to 18 holes, and thus the number of matches on each day doubled. This, it was felt, or hoped, would provide the underdog British with a better chance to score some upsets over the shorter haul. This year a third day of four-ball team matches was added, a form of golf that most Americans prefer to play at their clubs on a weekend but that is considered an abomination for tournament golf by the purists. For one thing, when two expert players are using their better ball, it will almost invariably take a birdie or an eagle to win a hole, so the match evolves into a putting contest.
The delight, if not the surprise, of the matches was the superb performance of Palmer. He started off shakily in the opening foursome match on Friday morning, partnered with young Johnny Pott, and they lost 3 and 2 to Huggett and George Will, the two youngest British players. In the afternoon, Palmer teamed with Casper, and they overwhelmed the Huggett-Will team 5 and 4.
In Saturday's four-ball matches, Palmer teamed with his old roommate from bachelor days, Dow Finsterwald. They won their morning match 5 and 4, and their afternoon match 3 and 2. Over the 30 holes they played on Saturday they were 13 under par. Of the 10-man American team, Billy Maxwell was the only one to be undefeated in the matches, but only Palmer and Finsterwald played morning and afternoon rounds three days running, a physical ordeal that neither had undergone in years.