Opinion time: The modern Ryder Cup started in 1983. Yes, “Team Europe” became a thing in 1979, but it wasn't until Tony Jacklin took over for the first of his four straight captaincies in ’83 that the winds of change really began to shift. To put it very simply, that's when the team that was variously called Great Britain/Great Britain & Ireland/Europe stopped being doormats.
Since then, we've had 18 Ryder Cups, of which Europe has won 11 and retained another, while America has captured six. In each of those 18 playings, it's possible to pinpoint a single on-course moment that had the most impact on the outcome. Sometimes it's a critical putt late on Sunday, and sometimes it's far earlier and far less dramatic and involves a group display. But the key term here is “on-course.” If you were getting cute, you could say, for instance, that the 2014 American loss happened the day Tom Watson was announced as captain. But this is not that kind of post. Our eyes are focused firmly on the competition itself, and what follows is a ranking of the best “definitive moments” from each of the 18 Ryder Cups since 1983.
Two years before Brookline, it's easy to forget that the Americans trailed in Spain 10½-5½ and almost pulled off what would still be the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history. They won eight points in Sunday singles and put a serious scare into the Europeans. If one other match had gone their way—rookie Tiger Woods losing to Constantino Rocca, perhaps—the U.S. would have won by a point. Instead, Europe escaped with Bernhard Langer's 2-and-1 victory over Brad Faxon in the eighth match. There was no memorable finish, no huge final putt, just a giant sigh of relief after a near disaster … a disaster that would strike hard two years later.
You know how we said it's possible to peg one moment where the winning team grabbed the competition by the throat? Here's your one potential exception, and it's the exception because Europe won literally every session before singles by a score of 2½-1½. Every one. That adds up to a 10-6 advantage heading into Sunday, but you can't even say that's definitive, because we know from Medinah that that particular margin is not insurmountable even on the road. Which seemingly means the critical moment was Luke Donald beating Chad Campbell to finish the job for an 18½-9½ final margin. But even by then, it was essentially already over. In short: This Ryder Cup was almost unfailingly devoid of drama.
By our count, there have been seven blowouts in the 18 modern Ryder Cups, and six have featured the home team winning. That means there's been just one road massacre, which means it's probably the most embarrassing loss of all. It happened in 2004, when U.S. captain Hal Sutton made a play for instant magic by pairing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, which backfired instantly. First out in the first four-ball session, the sputtering duo lost to Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington. They then fell to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood in afternoon foursomes. By the end of the day, the score was 6½-1½ for Europe, and the rout was on.
At no point in the modern Ryder Cup had the U.S. swept a session, much less the first session. That changed in Minnesota, when Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed (RIP, sweet partnership) lambasted the European juggernaut of Stenson & Rose, and the rest of the team followed. It was 4-0 before a young European lineup had time to catch its breath, and though the margin would tighten, the Americans had far too much firepower to blow that kind of lead, at home, against a team with six rookies.
Remember the energy and excitement on the American side after Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed won their first match, and Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson pulled out a dramatic win to give them a 2½-1½ lead heading into Friday afternoon? That lasted about 30 minutes or so before Paul McGinley's master plan started to take shape. As so often happens, the U.S. was totally befuddled by the Euro alternate-shot attack, and the afternoon session quickly reversed the momentum. The star teams were Graeme McDowell-Victor Dubuisson and Lee Westwood-Jamie Donaldson, and by the end of the day, it was Europe up 5-3. The Americans climbed to within one Saturday morning and then got drubbed again, by the same teams and the same margin, in Saturday's alternate-shot session. All hell broke loose in the U.S. team room that night, and the meltdown had begun.
Sound familiar? Well, history repeats itself: This is basically the same exact story as Gleneagles, except the U.S. had even more swagger—the Americans were up 3-1 after a session—and Europe thumped them even worse in the afternoon. Bjorn sent out Henrik Stenson/Justin Rose, Ian Poulter/Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia/Alex Noren and, of course, Team Moliwood, and this time, it was a definitive 4-0 whooping with no match even reaching the 17th hole. The mantra of Team Europe that morning was “stick to the plan”—a reference to the statistical models that showed them at a huge advantage in foursomes—and their courage was massively rewarded.
In what you might think of a mini-Medinah, Europe overcame a 9-7 singles deficit on the road, and Phillip Walton came to the 18th green against Jay Haas, in the last match on the course, 1 up with the overall score knotted at 13½. He had been 3 up with three to play over Haas, and the best he could manage was bogey on the final hole, but that halved the hole, secured the match and avoided what would have been a tragic collapse to secure Europe's narrow victory.
The Europeans took a one-point lead into Sunday, but as was the case for much of the ’90s, the Americans were the better team in singles. In this case, their dominance was enough to secure a 15-13 win—the last time the Americans won in Europe. The comeback felt secure when Davis Love III two-putted from 15 feet on the 18th hole to go from 1 down on 17 to a 1-up victory. It was the 13th point for the U.S., and once he reversed that match, the outcome was never in doubt.
This was one of the most important and momentous Ryder Cup results ever, with Europe winning on U.S. soil for the first time. However, the bulk of the work was done early, with a classic European 4-0 session on Friday—this time in four-ball. The Americans raged back on Sunday, though, and Eamonn Darcy, who hadn't had a very nice Ryder Cup career, found himself in a critical match with Ben Crenshaw. Hilariously, Crenshaw broke his putter by swatting at an acorn in frustration and had to putt with a 1-iron the entire back nine. He still managed to erase a three-hole deficit, but Darcy won the 17th hole and pulled off a tremendous up-and-down under pressure to give Europe its critical 13th point at a time when their fate looked very uncertain.
(Darcy's 18th hole starts at the 5:30 mark of the video below)
Paul Azinger's pod system was a stroke of genius, following three massively embarrassing American losses, and while Europe was under the gun and trailing from the very start, it wasn't until Kenny Perry, Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes—country boys all, and two of them Kentucky natives playing in front of a juiced-up crowd—won three straight singles matches to extinguish European hopes for good. Those wins gave the U.S. 13½ points with plenty of matches still on the course, and while Jim Furyk ended up clinching the win, the energy of the good ol' boys was the straw that stirred the drink.
It's an unfortunate reality of a competition as potentially tense as the Ryder Cup that the most memorable moment can sometimes be negative. Celtic Manor in 2010 was a strange cup, probably the strangest, with horrible weather and wardrobe malfunctions. It was a seeming disaster for the U.S. team until it made a late charge during a weather-induced Monday finish. When Zach Johnson beat Padraig Harrington in the 11th match, it was all tied at 13½, which meant Hunter Mahan, trailing Graeme McDowell by two holes on No. 17, could still win the last two holes and give the U.S. a 14-14 tie and a retained Cup. Then this happened:
It would have been very difficult for Mahan to win regardless, but as his tears in the post-match presser showed, this moment would live on.
This belongs in the class of clinching putts that may not appear especially dramatic considering the final score, but were enormous in the moment when the result was in doubt. McGinley wasn't on his best form in ’02, a Ryder Cup delayed a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, and had lost and tied a match during pairs. He trailed Jim Furyk most of the day in the singles session, but drew even at 17 with a birdie and left himself with a 10-footer on 18 to halve the match and clinch the Ryder Cup for Europe:
After the moral victory of 1983—a close loss in the U.S.—Team Europe was in a position where it needed to win to prove that it could actually stand toe-to-toe with the Americans. The Euros did that, and with relative ease, winning 16½-11½. A run of victories in the middle of the singles lineup turned a 9-7 margin into a blow-out, and it was Sam Torrance's putt that clinched it, and that lives on.
(Torrance's putt is at the 6:50 mark in the video below)
This one is ranked higher than expected because it took so much for Europe to pull off the Medinah comeback, the best in the history of this event, starting with Ian Poulter's heroics on Saturday afternoon and culminating with Martin Kaymer's putt as dusk settled on Sunday. Rose had to share the glory, but it's his putts on the 17th and 18th holes against Phil Mickelson that turned the tide for good—and made it clear that what was happening that day outside Chicago was more than just a false alarm: Europe was actually going to pull it off.
Look at the scoreboard, and you get a sense of what an odd Sunday this was at The Belfry. It was Tony Jacklin's last captaincy, and through two days he'd done his usual bang-up job, seeing Europe to a 9-7 lead. Then Sunday came, and his big guns all went down: Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sam Torrance, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam. But enough Europeans came through that Christy O'Connor was in a position on the 18th fairway to hit the shot that, if it didn't quite clinch the cup (that technically fell to Jose Maria Canizares, moments later) remains the iconic moment in the 14-14 tie that retained the Cup for Europe:
Jack Nicklaus was staring down a reality he hated: Becoming the first U.S. captain to lose at home. Lanny Wadkins' pitch on 18 against Jose Maria Canizares was only good for a half point, but it was the half point that guaranteed the U.S. would at least retain the cup. It was a shot so good, and so clutch, that Nicklaus literally kissed the divot, and bestowed the nickname "wheelbarrow" on Wadkins, because he needed a wheelbarrow to carry around his giant … well, you know.
(Wadkins' shot is at the 3:20 mark in the video below)
The celebration is heaped in controversy—and stills rub Europe and its fans the wrong way—but as for the putt, it was the perfect culmination to what was, at the time, the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history. It doesn't get better.
Here again, the sad truth that some of the most important moments are negative, i.e. a great player missing a shot. “The War by the Shore” was one of the most tense, most competitive and most controversial Ryder Cups ever, and it also seemed destined to come down to a single moment. That moment came when Bernhard Langer stood over a putt on the 18th hole to retain the Ryder Cup. It was the first and still the only time since ’83 that the Ryder Cup came down to a win-or-lose final putt. Langer had been brilliant just to get to that moment, making up-and-downs on 15, 16, and 17. His opponent, Hale Irwin, watched him line up the putt in abject terror, knowing the bogey he'd just made might go down as the bogey that lost America the Ryder Cup. But it wasn't to be for Langer:
(The 18th-hole drama starts at the 1:52:00 mark of the video below.)
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