Team-room tantrum a forerunner to the Thomas Bjorn Affair
Dai Rees was the Woosnam of 1957 - feisty, competitive and no stranger to conflict
Sunday 17 September 2006
As soon as Ian Woosnam began his reign in those innocent, uncomplicated days of 18 months ago, he announced how det-ermined he was to follow "in the great tradition of Welsh Ryder Cup captains". He had one countryman in mind - Dai Rees. And he still has.
For nobody realised when Woosnam said it, but "the great tradition of Welsh Ryder Cup captains" is based on arriving at a glorious triumph only after an inglorious controversy. Rees did it, the year before Woosnam was born, and when the Thomas Bjorn Affair flared up two weeks ago there were some uncanny echoes of a captain-player row almost half a century ago.
Only for Rees it blew up in mid-competition. How he came to conquer it is an incredible story, and one which must be of some comfort to his troubled successor.
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Rees's Mission Impossible, a blockbuster that catapulted this diminutive, fiery so-and-so (oh, the parallels) so deeply into the public consciousness that he remains the only Ryder Cup captain or player to have won the BBC's Sports Personality Of The Year award.
This was no mean feat in its own right, but is put into some context when you consider that year also witnessed Stanley Matthews playing his last game for England and Shirley Bloomer's victory at the French Open tennis tournament. But then the scale of Rees's achievement did have few equals either then, before or since.
Little wonder that Woosnam is at his chippiest when talking of what he views as his forgotten golfing forefather. "He was a remarkable man who is often passed over in history," says Woosnam about the Fontygary professional, who died in 1983. "I met him once during the Seventies when, at 60-plus, he was still trying to qualify for The Open. That summed him up. The ultimate competitor."
Aptly, it was the ultimate competition in which Rees made his name, although in those days the Ryder Cup was hardly the inexhaustible life force it is today. In fact, the competition was dying on its spikes. When it became Britain's turn to host in 1957 it had been 24 years since the last home success, and interest in the event was waning to an all-time low.
Essentially, that is how the match ended up being contested on a wholly unsuitable piece of scrubby South Yorkshire heathland that was way too short and way too undistinguished. But the PGA had no other choice. Play it there, or play it nowhere.
Lindrick happened to be the home club of Sir Stuart Goodwin, a famous industrialist, who offered to stump up the required funds just so long as the world came to Worksop. So arrived the American team with raised eyebrows, not only at the main road that bisected the course not once but twice, but also at this tree-lined "pitch and putt" that so obviously suited them. This was definitely not the feared links of Southport and Ainsdale.
Yetneither were they the feared Starred and Striped outfit of Palm Springs two years earlier. Sam Snead and Ben Hogan declined to play, and Jackie Burke's side wore a fallible look. Rees's, meanwhile, were a canny mix of youth and experience, and boasted a dashing young golfer called Peter Alliss in the first rank and Rees himself as the gnarled old grinder in the second. The troops, however, were scattered after a first day's foursomes when only Rees and Ken Bousfield managed to put a point on the board.
At 3-1 down, and with just the last day's singles to come (it was a two-day match back then) Rees called an emergency meeting of his team, and with two players to drop called for the day's scorecards. Max Faulkner, the 1951 Open champion, gallantly asked to be stood down, and he and Harold Weetman were left off the order. This is where it got ugly, uglier even than Bjorn.
Weetman, a close friend of Rees's, was furious and stormed out of the team room straight into a huddle of journalists. In those days, the golf hacks were not nearly as keen to print every last four-lettered word as they are now, and all that was noted of the Englishman's devastating onslaught was: "I will never play under Rees in a Ryder Cup again." He was wrong - he did in 1963, although only after being banned for a year as the authorities moved quickly to effect a controlled explosion.
Still, the fallout was the last thing Rees needed and he gave a resounding "no comment" when confronted with the morning papers on his way out to start the miraculous fightback. Within a few hours the storm had blown itself out. A few gusts of Welsh defiance had seen to that.
For one by one the Americans tumbled, Alliss being the only one of the eight Great Britain and Ireland players defeated. Rees played the captain's role with unashamed haste, dispatch-ing Ed Furgol 7 & 6. When the moment came for gloating, with three of the petulant American team refusing to attend the prize ceremony after the 7 1/2-4 1/2 reversal, Rees was at last caught short. "I am not a man of words," he said. "Let this victory speak for itself."
Woosnam might even lift that for himself; as he might lift Rees's gameplan and, of course, the manner in which he turned a vicious personal tirade on himself directly into American faces. Welshmen seem instinctively to know that no situation is beyond rescuing. Being from the land of the Great Redeemer and all that...
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