The biennial Ryder Cup matches have long been one of those neglected waifs of international sport, more of a diplomatic hands-across-the-sea ritual that the golfing Establishment loves to croon over than a hot-blooded athletic event. A team of rich pros off the high-powered U.S. golf tour takes on a bunch of poor boys from Great Britain and Ireland at their own crazy match-play game—two-ball, four-ball, better-ball foursomes, a niblick into the corner bunker sort of thing—knocks them flat, picks them up, brushes off the dust and then invites them all to try again in another two years. Goodwill stuff. Mutual understanding.
But last week at the Royal Birkdale course in the English seaside resort of Southport the familiar pattern got itself badly garbled. At the climax of three days of sunshine, wind, rain and stormy golf by the British, there stood Jack Nicklaus, America's superpro, his face drawn by the strain of a furious match with British Open Champion Tony Jacklin, his sun-bleached hair blown askew across a furrowed forehead, hunching over a putt of five feet on the final hole of the very final match that would determine the result of three days of eyeball-to-eyeball golf.
"I was terrified," said Nicklaus. "I wasn't just putting for me, I was putting for my country."
Terrified or not, Nicklaus got the putt into the hole to halve his match with Jacklin and create the first tie in 42 years of Ryder Cup history, 16 points to 16 points. The standoff permitted the 12-man U.S. team to retain the two-foot cup it has won 14 times in 18 attempts since 1927, but the boys went back to their lucrative tour needing a bit of dusting off themselves this time, and the quality of golf in Britain had taken on new luster.
The Redcoats did not exactly ambush the Americans. For a year there have been rumblings that the British were at last developing pros of international stature—a view that took on real substance when the 25-year-old Jacklin, a high-spirited, vigorous competitor who has become a successful regular on the U.S. tour, won the British Open. Youth was served, in addition, by the presence of Peter Townsend, an ebullient, long hitter of 22, who is also on the U.S. tour, and Bernard Gallacher, a Scot who at 20 is the youngest golfer ever to play in the Ryder Cup and—perhaps because of his age and inexperience—the cockiest. "He's some kind of arrogant," muttered a U.S. pro after talking to Gallacher for the first time. "I'm not awed by the Americans," said Gallacher, who has won two tournaments in Britain this year and been runner-up in four. "I think maybe they should be awed by me."
Faced with this kind of competitive steam, the U.S. players felt they were going to have to work to win. "The British are so keyed up they'll be hitting the ball nine million miles," said Frank Beard, whose steady nerve and compact golf swing has earned $160,000 this year, tops on the U.S. tour. "And we don't dare go back home if we lose."
A final hazard in the path of a routine U.S. victory was the fact that the Professional Golfers' Association of America had named Sam Snead as the team's nonplaying captain. There is no doubt that Snead has had a long and honorable competitive career. He is, at 57, still a wonder of a golfer. But he also can be a crude, sullen, cantankerous old buzzard, and he is about as capable of leadership as Ebenezer Scrooge. Snead's relationship with the majority of U.S. tournament players has long been one of mutual animosity. He was the only player of any reputation to side with the PGA in its administrative squabble with the touring pros.
The 12 players who went to Southport last week had won 20 tournaments between them this year and a massive $1,250,000 in prize money. They did not need coddling. But 10 of them had never appeared in a Ryder Cup, and for the most part they were unfamiliar with its strange forms of match play. Besides, someone had to pick the most effective eight starters twice each day, and a few of Sam's lineups must have brought joy to British Captain Eric Brown.
On the first morning Gene Littler, having a fine year on the tour and, with Casper, the only Ryder Cup veteran, was a notable nonstarter. So was Jack Nicklaus, who had played for years in international matches of various sorts. Nicklaus had looked impressively solid in practice rounds and was shocked at being benched. Somebody kidded him about being through at the age of 29. "Yeah. I'm through," Jack said, "if being 12 under par for my last 27 holes in practice means being through."
The first day went to the British 4�-3�, and after the morning of the second day the U.S. team had fallen behind six matches to four, with two matches halved, and obviously needed all the help it could get. The team of Nicklaus and Dan Sikes had barely lost a birdie-filled match to Jacklin and Neil Coles that went to the last hole and had shot a fine best-ball score of 66, eight under par. But they were dropped by Snead from the afternoon lineup. "Everyone's trying damned hard," said a member of the U.S. delegation, "but you could say that team morale is just about zero."