The Ryder Cup: Nothing to play for but pride

Story highlights

  • Most celebrated team event in golf gets underway Friday
  • Europe defend Ryder Cup against United States at Medinah Club in Chicago
  • Europe has won six of the last eight meetings of the biennial clash
  • United States dominated prior to European players competing from 1979 onwards

Less than a week after Brandt Snedeker picked up an eye watering $11.5 million check as he claimed the FedEx Cup, the best golfers from the United States and Europe will go head to head with not a dime on the line and with nothing to play for but pride itself.

The 39th Ryder Cup matches at Medinah Country Club in Chicago will be watched by packed and partisan galleries and a huge global television audience, but for the 12 players on each team overall victory in the biennial team event is all that matters.

They are playing for expenses only and whenever the issue of financial rewards is raised, it is quickly ruled out.

"No prize money is involved, just a lot of pride," three-time European captain Bernard Gallacher told CNN.

"And the matches are very, very competitive."

The American team will have the Stars and Stripes running through their veins and it's a chance for the Europeans to combine under a united flag.

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"It's the only competition we have with the United States outside the occasional football match and it's the same for them given that their main sports are baseball, gridiron and ice-hockey," said Bill Elliott, Chair of the Association of Golf Writers.

"Let's face it, it's not hard for Americans to show nationalistic pride! " the Briton added with tongue in cheek.

Timely intervention

This is a contest which grips golf and sports fans for three days but was in danger of extinction in the 1970s and had it not been for the intervention of 18-time major winner Jack Nicklaus, it may well have withered and died.

Nicklaus proposed to Earl Derby, the then president of the Professional Golfers Association, that players from continental Europe should augment the Great Britain and Ireland line-up to make for a better contest.

The United States had only lost once in the post-war era -- in 1957 at Lindrick -- and interest, particularly in America, was dwindling.

Nicklaus' suggestion was taken up, so in 1979 two Spaniards, Seve Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido, took their place for the match at Greenbrier in West Virginia.

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This did not prevent the visiting team from suffering a heavy defeat, but as Elliott, who was reporting his first of 17 Ryder Cups and counting, recalls, the change was "absolutely essential".

Scot Gallacher made one of his eight appearances as a player in that watershed encounter and admitted "Seve and Antonio had disappointing matches." (They both had 1-4-0 records.)

"However, their participation in the long-term saved the Ryder Cup," he added.

Two years later, Ballesteros sat out proceedings at Walton Heath in 1981 after a dispute over his European Tour membership, but even he would have been able to do little to prevent what is rated the strongest U.S. team in history thrashing the home side.

United Europe

That was to be last time that the U.S. enjoyed such a level of domination and by the time of the next match at Palm Beach Gardens in Florida in 1983, the Europeans were united under the captaincy of Tony Jacklin, with Ballesteros in his pomp.

A narrow defeat was followed by a resounding victory at The Belfry in 1985. Ballesteros famously drove the 311-yard 10th at the Midlands club to set the scene.

Sam Torrance sunk the winning putt and the champagne flowed as the players celebrated on the clubhouse roof as Concorde flew past.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the house," said Elliott.

When rookie Jose Maria Olazabal and Ballesteros led from the front to help Europe to their first win on U.S. soil in the 1987 match at Muirfield Village, the transformation of the event into a clash like no other was finally complete.

Read: Seve and Olazabal: Ryder Cup revolutionaries

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Olazabal, who will captain Europe in Chicago this week, says he was addicted to the Ryder Cup drug from the moment he first sampled the atmosphere.

"That 1987 Ryder Cup was very special to me -- it made me realize how special the event was and I fell in love with it straight away," he told CNN.

Top partnership

His partnership in four balls and foursomes (where the players take a alternative shots) with Ballesteros was to bring 11 wins and two tied rubbers in 15 matches over the course of four Ryder Cup contests.

Despite their domination, it was the United States who made a mini comeback of their own.

They tied the match at The Belfry in 1989, then wrested the trophy back in the "War on the Shore" at Kiawah Island in 1991, where Bernhard Langer agonizingly missed a tricky putt to force another tie.

The U.S. also won at The Belfry in 1993, but a European team under Gallacher's captaincy took the trophy back at Oak Hill in 1995 to spark a run of six victories in the last eight contests.

It was Ballesteros' last match as a player and he was sadly past his best, losing his last day singles.

But his tearful embrace with arch rival Nick Faldo, who had beaten Curtis Strange in the key match, is symptomatic of the spirit of the Ryder Cup, where individual performances are secondary to the team effort.

Gallacher had tasted narrow defeat as a non-playing skipper in 1991 and 1993 so victory in such fashion was sweet.

"I felt I made a few mistakes in the first two matches, but feel I learned from those mistakes for the 1995 match," he said.

The two victories for the United States since 1995 have both been on home soil: the infamous "Battle of Brookline" in 1999 and at Valhalla in 2008.

Raucous galleries

Olazabal will doubtless still have the images of 1999 deep in his memory as the U.S. team poured on to the green after Justin Leonard's putt gave him victory over the Spaniard.

But Olazabal still had his own putt to halve the 17th, meaning that golf etiquette had been breached. He missed the 25-footer and the cup was heading back across the Atlantic.

The U.S. win in 2008 in Kentucky was also greeted by raucous galleries but not on the level of 1991 and 1999, and both captains -- Olazabal and David Love III -- have spoken of the need for the traditions of the match to be preserved at Medinah.

Based on the world rankings, it is likely to be a close run affair.

Europe has four of the top five in the rankings, led by world No.1 Rory McIlroy, but the home team boasts 10 inside the top 20 and have -- in wild card pick Snedeker -- the man of the moment after his triumph in Atlanta.

The lowest ranked player in the match is Belgian rookie Nicolas Colsaerts at No.35, which demonstrates the quality of the offering over three days of competition.

The first two days are taken up with fourball and foursomes team play, with 12 head to head singles matches rounding off the action Sunday.

McIlroy's likely face off with No.2 Tiger Woods is set to be a final day highlight but nearly every expert is predicting a nip and tuck affair.

Close match

"My hope is that it will be a close match and that the result will come down to the final pairing and the final green," said Elliott.

"Then I hope the USA win because if we keep on winning, then the interest on the Stars and Stripes side of the Atlantic will start to wane."

"It really is too close to call," added Gallacher.

It will all be a far cry from the first Ryder Cup in Massachusetts in 1927 where the Great Britain and Ireland team traveled by ocean liner to contest a trophy which was the brainchild of English businessman Sam Ryder.

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They lost rather easily but it was not until 1937 that a U.S. team captained by Walter Hagen achieved the first 'away' win.

It was the signal for U.S. domination, with only the 1957 win and the 1969 halved match at Royal Birkdale, where Jacklin and Nicklaus played a memorable last day singles, offering GB and Ireland any consolation.

Nicklaus, forever in touch with the history of his beloved sport, then made his crucial intervention, meaning the contest came alive and since 1979 we have seen eight European wins, seven for the United States and one tied match.

Ballesteros, who played such a key role in the European resurgence, both as a player and captain of the winning team on Spanish soil in 1997, will be in everyone's thoughts this week.

It is the first match since he sadly passed away in May 2011 and Olazabal's men have a special image of him emblazoned on their golf bags as a constant reminder of his special place in the event's history.

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