No one is quite sure who first suggested a competition between US and British golf professionals. It’s thought that the idea may have originated with Golf Illustrated writer James Harnett in 1920. Others credit Inverness’ Sylvanius Jermain, who brought it up in 1921. It’s likely that—given the incredible interest in sports that led to the era being called the Golden Age of Sports—quite a number of people share the credit.
At any rate, in 1921, a group of American golf professionals faced off against their British counterparts in a competition held at the famous Gleneagles. That first match went to the British, who won 9-3.
And, when a group of American golf professionals found themselves with spare time before the Open Championship in 1926, a second match was held at Wentworth. The British professionals won that, too, 13.5 to 1.5. Participating in the match were Walter Hagen, Tommy Armour, Jim Barnes, Emmett French and Al Watrous on the American side, and Abe Mitchell, George Duncan, Archie Compston, Ted Ray and Arthur Havers on the British.
One of those in attendance at that second set of matches was British millionaire Samuel Ryder.
Ryder is an interesting character. He made his fortune by selling paper packets of seeds. Prior to this, seeds were available only in bulk quantities that were not useful for small gardeners. Ryder started buying the bulk seeds and repackaging them in penny paper packets. He and his family worked out of their home, delivering the seeds on Friday in time for the workmen to have for their Saturday day off. He soon grew quite wealthy, and had as many as 90 employees.
When he was in his fifties, Ryder’s failing health prompted his doctor to prescribe outdoor exercise and recommended golf. Skeptical at first, Ryder soon became hooked—even employing a full time professional named Abe Mitchell as his personal coach.
It was Abe Mitchell who beat American professional “Long” Jim Barnes in the 1926 matches to secure the victory.
Following the matches, Ryder met with Mitchell, Duncan, French and Hagen for tea. There, the group planned a series of regular competitions, with a cup and prizes to be provided by Ryder. The cup cost 250 pounds, and bore the likeness of Ryder’s favorite, Abe Mitchell.
The first official Ryder Cup event was held in 1927 at Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts. It almost was cancelled, however, due to a lack of funds for the British team. In the end, Ryder stepped up again and helped to pay their expenses.
The first British Ryder Cup team consisted of Ted Ray, George Duncan, CA Whitcombe, Fred Robson, George Gadd, Aubrey Boomer, Archie Compston, Arthur Havers and Herbert Jolly. Mitchell missed the event due to appendicitis. The American team was captained by Walter Hagen and included Johnny Farrell, Leo Diegel, Bill Mehlhorn, Johnny Golden, Gene Sarazen, Al Waltrous, Joe Turnesa. Mike Brady and Al Espinosa served as alternates.
The US won the event 9.5 to 2.5.
The event was held every year until 1937, after which it was interrupted for World War II.
Even after the war ended, however, it was not certain that the matches would resume. While the PGA of American and their British counterparts wanted to resume, the British simply couldn’t afford it. The war had hit them very hard and golf was a luxury in a country that would remain under rationing for years to come.
It looked like the 1947 match, which was slated for the Portland Golf Club would be scrapped. But then an Oregon fruit grower and golf lover named Robert Hudson stepped up to the plate. In a remarkable gesure, Hudson offered to pay the British team’s expenses.
Hudson was incredibly generous. He not only paid for their boat and train tickets, but also for their lodging, meals, caddies and anything else they needed.
Going the extra mile, Hudson also took a personal interest in the British team. He met the British at the dock in New York and threw a party for them when they arrived. Hudson then escorted them on their trip by train west to Oregon.
And for many years afterwards, Hudson sent each of the British team members a large fruit basket for Christmas—a gift that apparently was greatly appreciated, especially because Britain remained under food rationing.
After the war, the US dominated the Cup, winning 18 of the next 20 events. That pattern began to change, however, thanks to changes made in 1973 and in 1979. In 1973, the British team was expanded to include Irish professionals. Then in 1979, at the suggestion of Jack Nicklaus, the British/Irish team was expanded to include professionals from the European mainland.
The infusion of talent after 1979 has had a major effect on the tournament. Since then, the Europeans have won eight of thirteen.
The Ryder Cup was interrupted once again, in 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Both sides agreed to delay for a year, causing the biennial event to move from odd, to even numbered years.
The British team already had been expanded to include Ireland in 1973.