The Ryder Cup exhibition is a celebration of the sport of golf, a shining example of team camaraderie in an individual game, and a testament to the integrity and honor of this most rarefied and elevated …
Oh, who am I kidding? The Ryder Cup is a lowdown, bare-knuckle fight, and like any good fight, its history is rife with combative, sometimes petty, and always chippy behavior. Sure, there’s strategy, there’s glory, and there are even shining examples of sportsmanship like “The Concession.” But we’d be remiss not to recognize when things get testy, and with that in mind, today we’re celebrating the 10 chippiest moments in the history of the event. Let’s begin!
You might think that the Ryder Cup was a staid, almost ceremonial event before things really got good in 1983, and you’d mostly be right—especially when it was held in America—but things occasionally got spicy. The 1957 event was one of the very few years when the British team actually won, and was, in fact, their first victory in 24 years. The highlight (lowlight?) of that match at Lindrick Golf Club came on Sunday, when Eric Brown, a fiery redhead from Scotland, took on Tommy Bolt—nicknamed “Thunder” for his bad temper—in singles. Brown went 3 up, and thought that Bolt started playing slowly on purpose as a psychological ploy. In response, he sent his caddie to go to the clubhouse to get a chair so he could sit down during Bolt’s shots. When Brown won 4 and 3, the two didn’t shake hands, and Bolt said he didn’t enjoy it. Brown’s response was something like “I imagine not … you had no hope of beating me.” Bolt later complained about the British fans, calling them “the most miserable bunch of people you could ever have the misfortune to run into in a supposedly civilized world.”
In 1969, Eric Brown was back, this time as captain of the British team. And once again, it was one of the rare occasions in the early days when his side had a chance to win. Before the match, among other orders, he told his team not to help the Americans look for their balls. Not that everyone listened; “that’s a load of bull,” Britain’s star Tony Jacklin wrote in his Ryder Cup memoir, “I couldn’t have lived with myself if I saw a ball in the rough and didn’t help.” But that sense of animosity trickled down to the players when Dave Hill and Ken Still played Bernard Gallacher and Brian Huggett. At one point, Hill putted to about 12 inches, and tapped in, when Gallacher protested that he had gone out of order by not marking his ball. That was on the heels of a testy match that saw Huggett tell Hill to stop moving, and Still instructed his caddie not to hold the flag for Gallacher. That resulted in a shouting match, and at one point Hill threatened to hit Gallacher with a 1-iron. No punches were thrown, and the Americans won on 17.
There is no shortage of tense moments when it comes to Seve Ballesteros in the Ryder Cup, but perhaps the best/funniest/chippiest moment of all came in 1987, in his second match ever with Jose Maria Olazabal, when he took on Curtis Strange and Tom Kite in fourball. This story is best told by Strange himself, in the oral history “Against Them” by Robin McMillan:
“On the first hole of one match in 1987, I wanted to f***ing kill him. I’m playing with Kite. We’d had our rules meeting the day before. Some of that’s on sportsmanship and courtesy and playing within the rules. Well, to make a long story short, we’d discussed having a “through line,” which means the line of your putt past the hole. You don’t want people putting on it if you miss the previous putt long. ON the first hole Seve had a chip from just off the green. I had a long putt down the hill and putted it past the hole. Olazabal putted, then wanted to putt out, but I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, wait a minute, you can’t do that. You’re right on my through line.’ Seve came charging up. ‘That bother you?’ he said. ‘That bother you?’ I said, ‘yes, that does bother me.’ And so Seve stomped over to his chip and chipped it right into the back of the hole—then walked off the green pumping his fist at me! And I almost had to applaud him. More power to him. Goddamn, I was so mad I wanted to kill him.”
Seve and Olazabal won that match 2 and 1, and the Europeans took down the Americans for the first time on American soil.
It was extremely hard including just two Ballesteros stories, but along with the Strange incident from 1987, it’s obvious I had to include Azinger. This was No. 1 on my list of great golf feuds from a couple years ago, and here’s what I wrote then:
As Curt Sampson relates in his book War by the Shore, during the 1988 U.S. Open, Ballesteros encouraged Azinger in their final-round pairing, trying to coach him to victory. At the 1989 Ryder Cup, though, after being told by teammate Curtis Strange to be wary of gamesmanship in their Sunday singles match, Azinger pulled the surprising move of refusing to let Ballesteros switch out a scuffed ball on the second green. “Is this the way you want to play today?” Sampson quotes Ballesteros as asking, and from that moment on, their relationship was damaged. On the 18th hole of that match, Ballesteros disputed a drop Azinger took out of the water, and while Azinger won, 1 up, he was still brooding about the injustice years later … In 1991, at the infamous Kiawah Ryder Cup, fate paired the two men in the first match, and another dispute about a ball—the Americans had apparently used two different balls illegally, but didn’t pay for it—angered the Spanish pair of Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, fueling them to a comeback 2-and-1 win. Afterward, Seve called Azinger a liar, Azinger called him “the king of gamesmanship” and accused him of coughing during his shots, and the Spaniards beat them again in the afternoon (on the way to going 3-0-1 as a pair). The enmity between them contributed greatly to the bad spirits at that bitter Ryder Cup, and cemented golf’s greatest feud.
That’s really just the tip of the iceberg with these guys, who met three times and three times only in the Ryder Cup, with Ballesteros going 2-1.
It’s hard to know where to begin here—Dave Stockton, the U.S. captain, wanted to take a more combative approach to the Ryder Cup, and spent a large part of his captaincy drumming up enthusiasm and support for his team. The fact that this Cup happened to coincide with Operation Desert Storm didn’t help matters, and the opening ceremony took on a kind of military feel that led John Garrity at Sports Illustrated to write that the Euros “looked like Soviet dissidents forced to witness a Mayday parade of weaponry in Red Square.” Some of the Americans even wore camouflage hats on the first day, and this attitude trickled down to the fans … one local radio DJ gave out the phone numbers of the European hotel rooms, and encouraged fans to call them in the middle of the night. Even the pre-Cup hype video at the dinner shared by the teams was imbalanced in favor of the Americans. The tension mounted as the Cup got closer and closer, and some unbelievable events on the last day—Hale Irwin’s disappearing-and-suddenly-reappearing shot, Langer’s missed putt—capped off the Ryder Cup that truly changed the event. And the Europeans were not pleased.
In Valderrama, for reasons known only to him, European Ryder Cup legend Colin Montgomerie decided to let loose on the Americans before the events. Some of the comments were mild—he put himself on equal footing with Tiger Woods, said that Phil Mickelson was unreliable, and that Jeff Maggert wasn’t intimidating—but some got downright personal. At one point, he said that if the Cup was on the line, he hoped Scott Hoch would have to make a short putt for the Americans, a direct reference to Hoch missing a short putt to lose the ’89 Masters. But the most personal of all came when he spoke on Brad Faxon, saying that he was “going through a divorce and mentally I don’t think he’ll be with it.” That led to several non-Ryder Cuppers in the U.S. going after Monty—Fred Funk called him “the jerk of the world” and Bob Estes said he was a “crybaby”—and Monty was forced to apologize in person and in written letters to the Americans. (The post-script is that he went 3-1-1 that year, and Europe won the Cup.)
You know all about this one—the Americans staged an insane comeback on Sunday, and when Justin Leonard hit the putt that seemed to seal it for the Americans, they charged out on the green in celebration … stepping all over the line of Jose Maria Olazabal, who still had a putt to halve the match and keep European hopes alive. If you’re American, you might see it as a little well-meaning enthusiasm gone awry, but if you’re European, you’re far more likely to see it the way Sam Torrance did: “It was the most disgraceful and disgusting day in the history of professional golf.” To be fair, Torrance was talking about more than the green charge, referring also to the behavior of players like Tom Lehman, and the fans, who reportedly insulted the Europeans relentlessly, and one of whom seems to have spit on the wife of a European player. Five years later, outlets like The Guardian were running stories with titles like “Day of shame that refuses to die.” To this day, it hasn’t been forgotten, and likely will never be forgiven.
Here’s a rare example of a feud between two men who are supposed to be on the same side—Nick Faldo and Sergio Garcia, the two winningest players in Ryder Cup history. Once again, we go back to the feud post to trace how this all started (and continued) via the Ryder Cup:
It stems from the disastrous 2008 Ryder Cup, when Faldo turned in the worst European captaincy in 40 years as the Americans ran roughshod at Valhalla. Bad feelings about that loss were more acute in European circles than it might have looked from the outside, and it prompted some serious soul-searching and a shift in how captains were selected for the team (more succession-after-vice-captain experience, less lifetime-achievement award). In 2014, on Golf Channel, Faldo responded to a comment about Garcia’s Ryder Cup prowess by saying the Spaniard had been “useless” in Kentucky. In later quotes, Faldo brought up Garcia’s lack of passion stemming from his break-up with Greg Norman’s daughter.
While there was some bickering back and forth at Gleneagles, the really great line came four years later, after Garcia won three points in Paris and became Europe’s all-time Ryder Cup point leader. When asked how he felt, he dropped this gem: “This means a lot to me,” Garcia said. “I have passed some of my heroes today—and Nick Faldo.”
Even this year, the feud burned bright, with Faldo calling out Garcia as “the most immature player I ever witnessed!”
Here again we have two men from the same side squaring off, and in this case it might be the most infamous moment in the entire history of the Ryder Cup. It’s almost impossible to describe in a short paragraph—I just did a two-hour podcast on it—but in a nutshell, Watson managed to alienate and/or infuriate large swaths of his team that week, Mickelson foremost among him, and when Mickelson was given the chance to sound off in the post-match press conference, he took advantage. Here’s what I wrote at the time, after a moment that might have been the most shocking thing in a golf press conference most of us had ever seen:
When asked what worked in Valhalla in 2008, Mickelson pointedly noted that the players were invested in one another, and that Azinger had developed “a real game plan.” When the next reporter called this a “brutal destruction” of Watson, Mickelson threw out a half-hearted denial. He was less equivocal when someone asked him if those qualities had been present under Watson.
“Uh…” he began, drawing out the word and allowing himself a pregnant pause as he decided how honest he should be. “No. No, nobody here was in any decision. So, no.”
When asked, Watson chalked it up to a difference of opinion, but the room was tense. Next to Mickelson, Hunter Mahan tried to keep from smiling—a shocked sort of grin, amazed that his teammate had said something so inflammatory in such a public arena—while Keegan Bradley covered his face. It became more awkward from there. When I asked for Furyk’s opinion, describing the exchange between Phil and Watson as a “back-and-forth,” Mickelson interjected again: “I don’t think the premise of your question is very well stated. I don’t think that this has been back and forth.”
That mini-revolt sparked a sea change in the Ryder Cup; the task force was born, America got its act together, and in recent years the team has looked like a well-oiled machine; a far cry from the bad old days of Euro dominance that saw its dramatic final act in Gleneagles.
To understand how badly Rory McIlroy wanted to stick it to the American crowd in Hazeltine, you have to see this video from his Friday afternoon fourball match, and stick around until the end for the angle that shows both his bows and the extremely pissed off fist pump he gives afterward:
That was the first afternoon of action, and on Saturday, when he won two more matches with Thomas Pieters, the crowd interaction got worse, with McIlroy hemmed in by screaming Americans on almost every hole. This was one I witnessed personally, and the invective was astounding late in the day Saturday in particular, to the point that McIlroy had to have at least one fan tossed for an unprintable comment. Sergio Garcia and Danny Willett were also targets, but it was McIlroy who took the brunt. The U.S. went on to win that Cup, of course, and McIlroy had one more iconic moment in store on the eighth hole in his famous match with Patrick Reed, when the two exchanged long putts to the delight of the crowd before Reed went on to win in a somewhat anticlimactic back nine.