Who would be on the All Time Ryder Cup Dream Team for the United States? It is a hard question, because of the massive swing in Ryder Cup fortunes. Until the late 1970s, the US team beat up on Great Britain & Ireland teams that arguably had lesser talent. In recent decades, however, the European teams have beat up on the Americans. Have recent US teams underperformed, or have they been overmatched in talent?
Two of the best modern players are conspicuously absent: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. I got into a back-and-forth the other day with a fellow golf blogger who insisted that Tiger had to be on any Ryder Cup Dream Team. Unfortunately, his record simply does not warrant it. The second best golfer of all time has a 13-17-3 record. He has earned just 14 1/2 points in 33 matches. Similarly, Mickelson, otherwise one of the greatest golfers of his generation, is 16-19-7.
As is usual for lists of this sort, it assumes that the players are at the height of their athletic prowess. I also have not been able to rank them. I started — Hagen would be my first choice — but after that, I kept going around and around while making no progress. So I left that process unfinished.
All that said, here is the GolfBlogger All Time Ryder Cup Dream Team.
Walter Hagen played in five Ryder Cups (1927, 1929, 1931, 1933, 1935). Sir Walter also served as Captain six times, including five times as player-captain. The king of match play, Hagen spent much time during has career playing exhibition matches, including a famous one against Bobby Jones in 1925. Jones never had a chance. Hagen won 12 and 11. In a match play event for all the marbles, I might take Hagen over any player in history. Hagen’s freewheeling attitude is best expressed in this quote: Three bad shots and one good one equals par. A guy with an attitude like that is never out of a match.
Arnold Palmer played in six Ryder Cups (1961, 1963, 1965, 1967, 1971, 1973). As a result, he holds or shares the record for most matches (22), singles (6), foursomes (9) and fourballs (7) won. Palmer also captained the 1963 and 1975 Ryder Cup Teams. He was the last playing Captain. In 1967, at the height of his golfing powers, Palmer went undefeated. The intangibles are on Arnie’s side, too. On my Dream Team, Arnie would be followed by his fanatical army, rallying the American troops to ever-higher levels of performance.
Jimmy Demaret is not well known to today’s golf fans, but in the 1940s and 1950s, he was as good as anyone. Demaret won three Masters, and more importantly to this list, tied for third in four PGA Championships when that Major was a match play event. In three Ryder Cup competitions (1947, 1949, 1951), Demaret went undefeated. Ben Hogan said that Demaret was the best player he had ever seen in windy conditions, which should serve him well in Ryder Cup competitions on links courses. Dai Rees, European Team stalwart, regarded Demaret as the finest sand player he had ever seen. Demaret did not appear in a lot of matches, but was undefeated in the ones he played.
That Snead won the PGA Championship three times when it was a match play event speaks to his skill in the format. Slammin’ Sammy played in seven Ryder Cup competitions (1937, 1947, 1949, 1951, 1953, 1955, 1959) and lost just once — in singles. Snead also was Captain of the US team three times: 1951, 1959, and 1969. Note that in 1951 and 1959, he served as a playing captain. Snead’s winning percentage of 79% puts him in fifth among players with at least three matches.
Over eight Ryder Cups (1977, 1979, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993), Wadkins gained a reputation as a formidable match play competitor. That long career brought him to a 20-11-3 record. Wadkins is tied for first among US players for points won in foursomes and four-balls, is second in total points won, and third in total matches won. Wadkins’ name comes up every time knowledgeable golf fans talk about great match players. Match play is all about scoring, and Wadkins’ attitude toward this can be seen in this quote: Playing is so much more important than practicing. Young players today all hit the ball great, but they’re missing an edge when it comes to scoring and course management. This devotion to the range is like a disease.
The Golden Bear played on six Ryder Cup teams (1969, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1981) and was Captain on two (1983, 1987). Oddly, Nicklaus had won seven majors before he played in his first Ryder Cup at age 29. PGA of America rules at the time stated that a player had to be a tour member for five years before Ryder Cup eligibility. With 18 1/2 career points earned, Nicklaus is in the top five in points won. Had he been able to play earlier, Nicklaus would surely have an even more impressive record.
Billy Casper’s autobiography is called The Big Three and Me. The title reflects the fact that during the era of the Big Three, Casper was the d’Artagnan to their Athos, Porthos and Aramis. In the historical absence of any of the Big Three, Casper would have ably filled the spot. In his Ryder Cup Career, Casper played on a then-record eight teams (1961, 1963, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975). No one in Ryder Cup history has won more points than Billy Casper. Perhaps not as long off the tee as the other members of the Big Four, Casper instead depended on his short game and putting. Many knowledgeable observers regarded him as the best putter they ever saw. Chi Chi Rodriguez said that “Billy Casper could make a 40-foot putt just by winking at it.” In 1979, Casper captained the US team to a win over the newly expanded European Team.
Hale Irwin was as good an athlete as has ever played the game of golf. While at the University of Colorado, Irwin was a two-time All-Big Eight defensive back and an academic All-American in football. At the same time, he was able to win the individual NCAA Division I Championship in golf his senior year. A player needs to be tough and resilient to be a defensive back because even as plays go against you, the next is less than a minute away. With that sort of mental toughness Irwin played on five Ryder Cup teams (1975, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1991). In his debut, Irwin went 4-0-1. Even more remarkable: in those team wins, he had three different partners.
Tom Kite was undefeated in singles in his Ryder Cup career (1979, 1981, 1983, 1987, 1989, 1993). That’s three quarters of the way to a spot on the All Time Ryder Cup Dream Team. He also ranks eighth in Ryder Cup points scored, and fifth in foursome points won. Kite was known as a grinder and although he won only a single Major, was one of the best players on the Tour in the 1980s. Kite said: Discipline and concentration are a matter of being interested. If he was interested in being on the all-time team, he surely would grind his ways to wins.
Lee Trevino is tied with Arnold Palmer for most singles victories, is in fifth for matches won and fourth for points won. In all, the “Merry Mex” played in six Ryder Cups (1969, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1979, 1981). In his final Ryder Cup appearance, Trevino went 4-0-0. Unfortunately, his stint as Captain in 1985 did not go as well. His team suffered the first US loss since 1957. In any format, Trevino was a winner.
Tom Watson is a tough competitor who, in his early years, was known as “Huckleberry Dillinger” for the contrast between his boyish face and killer instinct. In four Ryder Cup competitions (1977, 1981, 1983, 1989), Watson compiled a 70% winning record. In 1983, h went 4-1-1 and earned the wining singles point against Bernard Gallacher for a thin US victory at 14 1/2 to 13 1/2. Watson’s record as a Captain is checkered, but this list is for players, so he stays. “I learned how to win by losing and not liking it,” Watson said. That’s the kind of spirit that earns a spot on the All Time Ryder Cup Dream Team.
J.C. Snead is my wild card pick. The nephew of Sam Snead, J.C. Snead quietly had a remarkable Ryder Cup career. He played on three Ryder Cup teams (1971, 1973 and 1975), compiling a 9-2-0 record. That’s the fourth best Ryder Cup winning percentage for a US player. J.C. Snead’s pro career, on the other hand was similarly unremarkable.