From polite applause to wild catcalls: how Ryder Cup fans have changed

Brian Viner explains how a missed putt in 1985 can be blamed for the increase in fierce partisanship that can turn ugly

Jack Nicklaus could not have known just what he was starting, when in 1977 he called for the Great Britain & Ireland Ryder Cup team to be expanded to include players from continental Europe.

Fittingly, it was at his own Muirfield Village Club in Columbus, Ohio, a decade later, that the Americans were beaten for the first time on home soil, and with intensified competition between the two sets of players came more extreme partisanship from the crowds, culminating in the toxic atmosphere of Brookline 1999. That Ryder Cup is remembered for the intemperate behaviour of the US players and fans after Justin Leonard had holed a huge birdie putt on the 17th green, but it should also be recalled that Colin Montgomerie's 70-year-old father had earlier felt compelled to leave the course, so distressed was he by abusive comments directed by spectators towards his son. Old Sam Ryder must have turned in his grave.

Still, better a toxic atmosphere than no atmosphere at all. For decades, American golf fans took little or no interest in the Ryder Cup; the PGA of America faced a formidable four-yearly challenge to sell the event to sponsors and spectators, some of whom were unaware that professional golf even existed outside the United States. Imagine, then, the puzzlement that greeted the 3&2 opening-day defeat of Arnold Palmer, an all-American hero and the game's transcendent superstar, and his partner Johnny Pott, by a little-known Scotsman called George Will and his Welsh teammate Brian Huggett, in Atlanta in 1963.

"When the match finished on the 17th green, 12 people applauded," recalled Huggett this week. "And they were all members of the Great Britain & Ireland committee."

Despite that memorable foursomes win, the GB&I team took their habitual hammering in that Ryder Cup, and the pattern continued, but for a rare tie in 1969, until 1977, by which time Huggett was non-playing captain. Six months or so later, he set off for the Masters with Lord Derby, president of the PGA, their mission to insist that if the Ryder Cup team was no longer to be restricted to British and Irish players, it should at least be confined only to Europeans. "By then, quite a few of the American players wanted to make it them against the Rest of the World," Huggett added. "But we felt it at least had to be Europe, otherwise it would lose its identity."

 

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So Europe it was, although for a while the hammerings continued, and the American golfing public maintained their indifference. "In 1979 at Greenbrier, they didn't even know it was called the Ryder Cup," Nick Faldo told The Independent last week. "They called it the Ryder Cup international matches. And if you look at the footage of those days, it was nothing like what it is now, with golf courses chosen for their amphitheatre effect, and that incredible partisanship, which crossed the line at Kiawah [in 1991, and at Brookline]."

The last real American hammering was administered at Walton Heath in 1981, although Howard Clark, who like Faldo had made his debut four years earlier in the final throes of the GB&I era, understandably likes to recall that he thumped the great Tom Watson 4&3 in the singles that year. "He was five under par, too, when he lost, and I was nine under. Not many people know that ... and not many people really care."

As Clark sees it, the fierce partisanship among spectators at the Ryder Cup all started with a single missed putt, the day-two tiddler that Craig Stadler missed at The Belfry in 1985, to hand an unlikely half to Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle.

"There was a kind of dull cheer, but our fans weren't cheering his miss, they were cheering Europe getting half a point. Unfortunately, it was misconstrued, and I think that led to Kiawah Island, where players were getting early-morning wake-up calls in their hotel rooms, and ultimately to Brookline."

Clark played on six Ryder Cup teams, winning three times, losing twice, and tieing once. "In the 10 years between 1985 and 1995, the atmosphere changed totally," he told The Independent. "When we won on their patch in 1987, you could sense the American crowd being really brassed off. And in 1995 at Oak Hill [in New York State], there was a narrow walkway from the practice putting green to the first tee, and I remember that being very intimidating. Lots of comments calling you 'loser' and so on. It was pathetic stuff – I've heard much worse at kids' football matches – but still not nice. Except in my case it backfired, because I decided that nothing was going to upset me, nothing was going to excite me. I called it my flat-line mentality and it worked nicely. But I couldn't have played with that intensity all the time. I holed in one at Oak Hill and I didn't know how to celebrate, because how do you celebrate when you're flat-lining?"

Clark never captained a Ryder Cup team, which is either a shame or a mercy, depending on your perspective, because he has said that he would have made Geoffrey Boycott his right-hand man. These days, he is on the Sky Sports commentary team and, even though the spectre of Brookline is receding into the distance, he reckons that the catcalling from the galleries at Valhalla four years ago was as bad as he has heard it.

What will it be like at Medinah these next few days? Everyone says that with Davis Love III and Jose Maria Olazabal captaining the teams, manifestly a pair of gents, the crowds will be enthusiastic but respectful. Yet if, in the sports-mad city of Chicago, the Americans find themselves trailing, some of us wouldn't like to bet on high standards of sportsmanship. Maybe that's a good thing. At least it will show that they care. But in any event, the Ryder Cup as it was when Brian Huggett and George Will beat Arnie Palmer and Johnny Pott in virtual silence, has gone for ever.

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