Mike Aitken: Scotland’s proud Ryder Cup history

THE bond which ties Scotland to the biennial match between the best golfers from both sides of the Atlantic is more intractable than even a Gordian knot.

Sam Torrance seals Ryder Cup victory at The Belfry in 1985. Picture: Getty
Sam Torrance seals Ryder Cup victory at The Belfry in 1985. Picture: Getty

Captains, players and administrators from the home of golf are so bound up with the narrative of the Ryder Cup, the story could almost be crowned with tartan ribbons.

At Gleneagles, Stephen Gallacher, who comes of age as the 21st Scottish golfer to play in the match, will strive to enhance the grand tally of 94 points already won by his compatriots between 1927 and 2012. As much as that achievement may resonate, who could forget how, during the contest’s genesis, Jock Hutchison from St Andrews brought up the idea of a match at Gleneagles in 1921 where the Scots bolstered the ranks of the American team as well as their own side ?

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When golf’s first-ever contest between the professionals of Great Britain and the USA duly took place over at the King’s Course, no fewer than four Scots – Fred McLeod, Hutchison himself, Harry Hampton and Clarence Hackney – turned out in American favours, while Aberdeen’s George Duncan captained the home side to a 10½-4½ victory. It was the same story at Wentworth in 1926 for another unofficial duel which saw Tommy Armour and Bobby Cruickshank represent the USA while Duncan, by now the club professional over the West Course, spearheaded a rout of 13½-1½ .

A year later in Boston, however, at Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts – a course imagined by none other than Dornoch’s Donald Ross – saw Ted Ray’s men lose comprehensively. It wasn’t until Duncan took charge at Moortown in 1929 that Britain won their first official Ryder Cup under Scottish command.

A former carpenter who had turned down the chance to play football for Aberdeen FC, Duncan had won The Open in 1920 and was a member of the GB side from 1927 until 1931. He led the team by example in Leeds, where he defeated Walter Hagen, who suggested the pairing, by 10 & 8 in the course of a 7-5 victory. The match at Moortown was watched by what was then the largest crowd, 15,000, ever to attend a golf tournament in the UK. Sam Ryder himself presented the trophy to Duncan. (Interestingly, Sam donated a second Ryder Cup to Moortown by way of a thank you for the tireless support of the ladies’ section which is still played for today by the club’s women members.)

By some twist of fate, no Scot would take charge for another 34 years until Johnny Fallon was handed the task in Atlanta. Runner-up to Peter Thomson in the Open at St Andrews in 1955, the Scot made his only appearance as a player that same year. He featured once in foursomes and established a 100 per cent winning record. His tenure as captain, though, was less rewarding as GB&I lost 23-9 at East Lake. Salting the wound, at a time when the Ryder Cup routinely lost money, the PGA declined to pay either air fares or expenses for the players’ wives in America.

If Scots were under-represented as captains for 40 years of Ryder Cup history, the modern era ushered in a change of guard. Between 1969 and the present day, seven of the 22 matches have featured Scots in charge. A formidable Ryder Cup competitor who won all four of the singles ties he played between 1953 and 1959, Eric Brown took command of GB&I at Birkdale in 1969 when the match was halved thanks to that unforgettable gesture from Jack Nicklaus to Tony Jacklin on the 18th green. It was an outcome which revitalised the flagging fortunes of an encounter weighed down by American dominance. The fiery Bathgate golfer also became the first Scot to be honoured with the captaincy twice, though the outcome in 1971 at Old Warson Country Club in Missouri marked a weary return to American ascendancy.

One of Brown’s players in St Louis, where he won three and a half points, was another Bathgate stalwart, Bernard Gallacher. The odds against two men from the same wee club in West Lothian becoming Ryder Cup captains were astronomically long. Yet, after making his debut at 20 under Brown, Gallacher went on to lead Europe on no fewer than three occasions himself and earn a notable 14½-13 ½ victory on American turf at Oak Hill in 1995.

Back on duty as a vice-captain at Gleneagles this month, there was some debate before the match at the Belfry in 2002 whether or not Sam Torrance was temperamentally suited to the captain’s post. As it turned out, the Largs man proved the doubters wrong and emerged as one of Europe’s more diligent as well as passionate captains with his attention to detail playing a fundamental role in Europe’s victory over the USA by 15½-12½.

In 2010, at Celtic Manor, it was the turn of Colin Montgomerie to lay his reputation as a notable on the line. The showdown was blighted by miserable weather, forcing a change in format during the event which didn’t finish until the singles spilled over into Monday. Thanks to Graeme McDowell’s 3&1 win over Hunter Mahan in the anchor match, however, Europe won their fourth consecutive home match and captain Monty’s standing as a Ryder Cup heavyweight was enhanced.

If there’s an element of symmetry attached to the Ryder Cup being staged at Gleneagles in 2014 because the story effectively started there in 1921, it’s also fitting Scotland’s most notable contributor to the match with 23 ½ points should live nearby. When the BBC conducted a poll during the 2006 match at the K Club to identify Europe’s greatest-ever Ryder Cup player, Monty received 49 per cent of the vote and came out ahead of even Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. Today, perhaps, it would be possible to predict a different outcome because Ian Poulter is shaping up as one of the most effective players the match has ever produced, with a higher winning average, 80 per cent, than one of America’s leading lights, Arnold Palmer.

Monty brought a clockwork certainty to his work off the tee in the Ryder Cup and a conviction to his putting which might have won him three or four official majors (a consolation of two senior majors arrived this year) had he only been able to hole out as effectively in the most prized stroke-play competitions as he did in match-play. For all his close shaves in the proper majors, fate decreed the Ryder Cup would be the arena in which Montgomerie overshadowed his peers.

Of course, Monty, who won more points than any other Scot, is far from the only candidate worthy of the honorary title of Scotland’s Mr Ryder Cup. Between 1969 and 1995, Bernard Gallacher was involved in every match as either a player, vice-captain or captain and formed a formidable partnership with compatriot Brian Barnes. He won 15½ points from 31 matches, including six in singles. Similarly, Sam Torrance played in every Ryder Cup between 1981 and 1995, where he holed the winning putt against Andy North, before captaining Europe’s victory in 2002. Barnes, with 10½ points, and Sandy Lyle, with 8, are among the country’s other Ryder Cup special ones.

Yet as impressively as all these facts and figures combine in detailing Scotland’s overwhelming contribution to the match, it’s a curiosity of Ryder Cup legend that the only previous official staging of the contest at the Home of Golf was at Muirfield in 1973. It took place during a chilly September when Bernard Hunt, who passed away last year at the age of 83, led the side from Great Britain and Ireland and Jackie Burke brought an American team to Muirfield showcasing the formidable talents of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino. Of course, this was the era of relentless American dominance and Edward Heath, the Prime Minister of the day, presented Samuel Ryder’s trophy to Burke after an emphatic 19-13 success.

That was the first time in 46 years the Ryder Cup had been held in Scotland and another 41 summers would elapse before a very different beast is uncaged at Gleneagles. As recently as 1981, the match at Walton Heath posted a loss of £50,000, and it took until 1987, at Muirfield Village, for the duel to sell out in America. Now, as the 40th staging awaits visitors from 75 countries and a global TV audience of 600 million, the boost to Scotland’s pocket is estimated in the eye-watering realm of £100m.

Time, at long last, to loosen the knot of Ryder Cup fervour in Scotland.