Gleneagles is the ‘spiritual home’ of Ryder Cup

Spectators check the scoreboard at the first ever 'transatlantic tussle' in 1921. Picture: Complimentary
Spectators check the scoreboard at the first ever 'transatlantic tussle' in 1921. Picture: Complimentary
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Gleneagles can claim to be the spiritual home of the Ryder Cup, having hosted the first ever transatlantic tussle in 1921, writes Tom English

ON TUESDAY afternoon, one year and two days before the first ball is hit, Paul McGinley and Tom Watson will sit down together at Gleneagles to talk about the Ryder Cup. The captains will, no doubt, speak about the Miracle of Medinah and their own memories of the matches, but there is another story to tell and it took place right there at Gleneagles, 92 years ago.

Harry Vardon at Gleneagles. Picture: Complimentary

Harry Vardon at Gleneagles. Picture: Complimentary

It was sometime in 1920 when the idea of a golf match involving the best of British and America’s finest first started to take hold. History records that the Ryder Cup was born seven years later but the concept had already fired the imagination by then. Close to the heart of it, it seems, was Jock Hutchison. Genial Jock from St Andrews. Exiled in the States. Reigning USPGA champion, soon to be Open champion and a wind-up merchant and grand schemer, too.

Jock was home from America and was telling anybody who would listen that the standard of player in the new world was hot. Maybe too hot for anything his homeland could throw at them. He had a buddie, Laurie Ayton. Another transplanted Scot. Another fine player who was making hay with this notion of a transatlantic Cup. All they needed was some hype and a venue. The former was easy. The latter, as it turned out, was Gleneagles.

In the second week of February 1921, Gleneagles sent a cablegram to the Professional Golfers’ Association of America. “The cablegram states that the Cup is a massive handsome affair and quite suitable to represent the championship of the world,” reported the New York Times. And so the match was set. The Americans were coming over for the Open championship at any rate. Now they had a second mission, a team prize to win as well as a Claret Jug.

Several people can lay claim to having the idea in the first place. Hutchison and Ayton latched on to it on their trip home, but it had originally been floated by an American businessman, Sylvanus P Jermain, and an employee at Golf Illustrated magazine, James Harnett. “Past USPGA president, George Sargent, credited Jermain for first presenting the idea,” writes Ed Hodge in Jewel in the Glen, a beautiful history of Gleneagles. “However, Bob Harlow, founder of Golf World and one-time manager of [Walter] Hagen reported in 1951 that the match was first proposed by Harnett in 1920.” Whoever was the true inspiration will never be known for sure, but Harnett is the best guess. It was, after all, Harnett who helped raise funds for the players for the trip to Scotland and Harnett who helped pick the American team, along with Hagen. Initially, they weren’t sure whether to include the transplanted Scots in the side or not. In the end, they came around to the view that they couldn’t do without them.

In late May, the RMS Aquitania, built at the John Brown shipyard in Clydebank, carried America’s finest golfers out of New York Harbour and took them to Southampton, whereupon they boarded a sleeper train to Glasgow, eventually fetching up at Gleneagles. The King’s Course was majestic on the eye, the half-built hotel less so.

This was Team America on its first voyage out of the States, but it was Scots who brought the game there in the first place, Scots who designed their courses, Scots who won their tournaments and Scots who taught the natives how to play. Inevitably, the American team had Scots in it. Among the visiting team of ten, there was Hutchison of St Andrews, Fred McLeod of North Berwick, Clarence Hackney of Carnoustie and Harry Hampton of Montrose. There was also Walter Hagen out of New York. The Haig was the star. Flamboyant as could be. He’d already won two of his 11 majors by then.

Waiting at Gleneagles were some of the game’s immortals. The British team had James Braid, Harry Vardon and JH Taylor at its heart. The Great Triumvirate might have been pushing on, but they were ready. Ted Ray, 1912 Open champion and reigning US Open champ, was also in the home side. George Duncan, holder of the Claret Jug from 1920 was there, too. What happened at Gleneagles was called the International Challenge but, in essence, it was the forerunner of the Ryder Cup.

“Any hope of [the Americans having] a relaxing stay to rest body and soul was short-lived,” it says, in Jewel in the Glen. “With the regal splendour of hotel still under construction, the visiting side was offered ‘accommodation’ consisting of five waterless railway carriages. The players were thus forced to fetch and carry their own water for much of the week. It was far from a hospitable welcome and the American contingent was unimpressed.”

The digs would have disappointed, but the scenery did not. “Pretty as a picture,” said Hagen as he surveyed the landscape.“If a man can’t play golf here then he can’t play,” said Wild Bill Mehlhorn from Texas. “Aye,” said Duncan. “This is as beautiful as golf gets.” And coming from Duncan, who never had a reputation for jollity, that was some compliment.

On the morning of 6 June, 1921, Duncan and Abe Mitchell for Britain and Hutchison and Hagen for America walked to the first tee on the King’s and thus began the journey that has lasted more than 90 years, an odyssey that will take us back full circle 12 months from now. Five foursomes and ten singles were played that day. “The sun lit up the golden glory of the gorse,” reported The Scotsman. Some reporters thought that America would win, that they had young and hungry players in their ranks who would sweep Britain’s old guard away. You could see where they coming from. Vardon and Braid were 51 years old. JH Taylor was 50. Vardon had suffered terrible illness and had won his last major seven years before. Braid had finished his Open championship domination fully ten years earlier. The last of Taylor’s five Open championship victories was eight years in the past. Against Hagen’s young guns, you could see why some thought they would struggle.

Duncan and Mitchell halved the opening match with Hutchison and Hagen. Behind them, Vardon and Ray were a team again and were up against Emmet French, from the Youngstown Country Club in Ohio, and Tom Kerrigan, from the Siwanoy Country Club in Bronxville, New York. Vardon and Ray demolished them 5&4. In the third match, Braid and Taylor were up against the American-Scots, McLeod, and Hackney. They halved, but no half-points were awarded in this challenge. Britain ended the morning session 3-1 ahead with ten singles to come.

The American strategy for the afternoon was clear. They packed their best men at the top of the order and like so many Ryder Cup teams that followed in the decades after, they hoped for early momentum and lots of red, white and blue. They had Jock leading them out, then Hagen, with French and McLeod following on. And it worked, if only for a little while. Hutchison might have been beaten and Hagen may have only halved, but French beat Ray and McLeod beat Taylor. The gap was down to one point.

The comeback was on, but soon it was dead. Vardon checked the American’s momentum and won his match with Kerrigan, the great man covering the 17 holes played in just 64 strokes. Vardon won 3&1 and then Braid hammered his fellow Scot, Hackney, 5&4 and Britain never looked back. They won 9-3 in the end. A stroll. Duncan, the leader of the home team, accepted the plaudits and thanked the visitors. French, the American, did likewise for his side. “This is a glorious place to be,” said French. They all agreed that these matches should be repeated sometime, that there was great potential in the idea of a transatlantic joust. Soon that competition would be born in the guise of the Ryder Cup.

So when McGinley and Watson talk about history on Tuesday then we can say that the annals cannot just begin with Samuel Ryder and the first official match at the Worcester Country Club in Massachussets in 1927. The story began six years before that with Duncan and French in the captain’s seats that are now filled by McGinley and Watson, with the Great Triumvirate taking on The Haig and the exiled Scots in a match that was the Ryder Cup in all but name. Gleneagles hosted it. And Gleneagles welcomes it back, in a sort of homecoming.