All hail Ryder Cup hero Brian Huggett
That’s more than a wee while in anyone’s language but, for one of the participants at least, the eventual 19-13 defeat suffered by the Great Britain & Ireland squad remains one of the most memorable weeks of his life, never mind his career.
Playing in what was the fifth of his six appearances against the might of the Americans, Brian Huggett emerged with the only unbeaten record on either side (John Garner also didn’t lose a game, but he didn’t play one either). Not only that, the battling Welshman teamed up with England’s Maurice Bembridge to defeat a pair of highly promising young Yanks by the names of Palmer and Nicklaus 3&1 in an opening-day four-ball. And, just to round things off nicely, Huggett’s wife, Winnie, gave birth to their youngest daughter, Sandra Jane, at 10.30 that same morning.
“That was a very special Ryder Cup for me, for obvious reasons,” says the now 77-year-old Huggett. “When Maurice and I beat Arnie and Jack, I thought things couldn’t get any better. But they did. That was the only Ryder Cup in which I didn’t lose a match. So, for me personally, Muirfield is at least the equal of 1969, when we tied the match with the Americans at Royal Birkdale.”
Ah yes, 1969. If Huggett is remembered for anything in a notable career that produced 16 European Tour wins, ten more on the European Senior Tour and saw him twice finish in the top three at the Open Championship, it is for the five-foot putt he holed on Birkdale’s final green thinking he had “that” to win the Ryder Cup. As things turned out, he was a tad premature in his assumption. But it remains one of the gutsiest putts ever made in the long history of the biennial contest.
“I was in the second-last match in the last-day singles against Billy Casper,” recalls Huggett. “Tony Jacklin and Jack Nicklaus were behind us. With four or five holes to go, it became obvious it was going to come down to those two matches. I remember seeing through the crowd that Tony was one up on Jack. I was level with Billy at that point. And when we got to the 18th green I was lining up my putt when there was a huge roar from the 17th green. “I thought Tony had won. He had been one up the last time I saw him. But he had actually holed a huge putt for an eagle to draw level with Jack. The match was still very much alive but I didn’t know that. I told myself just to trust my method and knock it in. And I did, dead centre. Before I got off the green, I heard what had actually happened. Eric Brown, our captain, was there and somehow – I have no idea how – so was my Dad. I broke down in tears when I saw him.”
In the minutes that followed, of course, Huggett was afforded a close-up view of what is still one of golf’s most iconic gestures, when Nicklaus sportingly conceded Jacklin a three-foot putt and thereby ensured the matches ended in an unprecedented tie.
“It was a great moment, even if it didn’t go down too well with some of Jack’s team-mates,” says Huggett. “I remember it as a wonderful gesture. Those who felt he had done wrong were just a little bit jealous. They were annoyed that Jack got all the plaudits for his sportsmanship. But he deserved all of it. I just don’t believe he did it for anything but the right reasons. Nothing else would be in his head.”
That Huggett should be so outwardly emotional in a moment of such high drama is no surprise.
The second of three diminutive Welshman to shine in the Ryder Cup – Dai Rees and Ian Woosnam the “before and after” – the Porthcawl native epitomised perfectly the combative qualities so typical of his countrymen. All in all, he was made for match play.
That fact alone made Huggett’s omission from the 1965 side surprising at the time. Fresh from a second-place finish in the Open at Birkdale, the British captain, Harry Weetman, chose not to pick the man who had emerged from his Ryder Cup debut two years earlier with a commendable 2∫ points from five matches. Even more strange was the fact that the matches were to be held at Birkdale, the very course where Huggett had just beaten the world’s best players, with the exception of Australian Peter Thomson.
“I hadn’t played very well late in 1964 and early in 1965,” admits Huggett. “But second in the Open shot me up the rankings – but not quite enough to guarantee me an automatic spot. I was a bit disappointed. I clearly didn’t buy dear old Harry enough drinks! But it was a bit controversial and I remember at least one newspaper article questioning my omission. One piece had a picture of me out playing with my wife during the Ryder Cup. The headline said something like ‘he shouldn’t be there he should be at Birkdale’.”
Twelve years on, Huggett was on the other side of the selectorial fence when he led what turned out to be the last GB&I Ryder Cup side to a five-point defeat at Royal Lytham. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t the happiest experience.
“I don’t think Ryder Cup captaincy is nearly as important as some people make out,” he insists. “To me, the captain is only as good as the team. And I include myself in that. I wasn’t a great captain because I didn’t have a very good team. The problem with most GB&I sides was the length of the ‘tail’. We always had three or four players who were competitive, but equally there were always three or four who we knew would never score many points.
“I have a laugh to myself when I see captains have four assistants these days. That would never have worked for me. And I can’t imagine someone like Colin Montgomerie actually listened to anyone else when he was captain. I have no doubt he will say that he did, but I bet deep down he didn’t really. At the end of the day, a captain has to go with what he alone thinks. You certainly don’t need four vice-captains.
“I went with my gut feeling more than anything else. It’s not that complicated. If someone played really badly in the morning, how likely is he to play really well in the afternoon? Not very, I would think. You certainly don’t need a committee to help with stuff like that.”
Still, there was one committee on which Huggett sat that had a profound and enormously important influence on the future of the Ryder Cup. A few months after that drab and utterly predictable defeat at Lytham, the former Senior British Open champion was at Augusta National as part of the British PGA delegation that met with their American counterparts during the 1978 Masters.
“Jack Nicklaus quite rightly gets a lot of credit for the letter he wrote after the 1977 matches, suggesting that the British team be strengthened,” recalls Huggett. “But it wasn’t that simple. We had a long discussion about the Ryder Cup at Augusta. The first suggestion was that the United States should play a ‘Rest of the World’ team. We countered that by saying it should just be Europe. Which turned out to be the right thing to do. Had we gone with the first option, the Ryder Cup would have died and turned into something like the Presidents Cup we have today.
“Thankfully, the PGA of America saw the merit in our suggestion and they were happy to give the European team a chance to show they could make the matches more competitive. Which happened almost immediately of course. But it was a close thing. If it had not been for that meeting, things would have been very different.
“I’m obviously happy with the way it has all turned out. The Ryder Cup would never have meant the same to an Australian or a South African or a Japanese. It would have been difficult for them to bond in a team environment. In contrast, the Europeans have an identity and an inherent closeness when they get together. Plus, we knew that we had a number of potentially great players coming through at that time. Thank God, the Americans recognised that back in 1978. They deserve a lot of credit for their forward thinking.”
All of which is undoubtedly true. But Brian Huggett did his bit too. Indeed, few individuals have done more for the current standing of the Ryder Cup – “it’s the biggest sporting event in the world after the Olympics and the World Cup,” he says with justifiable pride – both on and off the course.