Fire in the Hole! How the Ryder Cup became the most heated event in golf (and possibly all of sports)

September 20, 2018

Has the Ryder Cup become the most heated event in all of sports? From its early-20th-century beginnings as the passion project of British seed merchant Samuel Ryder, the competition has held intrigue. But bad blood and nuclear combativeness? That built up along the way. Here’s a look at how the Cup has combusted into golf’s preeminent firestorm of jingoism, enmity and pure, unabashed emotion.

U.S.  9 ½
Great Britain & Ireland  2 ½

The inaugural Ryder Cup is staged at Worcester Country Club, near Boston. Sam Ryder doesn’t make the across-Atlantic trek because he hates sea travel. Smart move—he would’ve retched when he saw the final score.

Great Britain & Ireland  7
U.S.  5

Europe gets its revenge. Afterward, U.S. team captain Walter Hagen says: “To lose in a game is not a national calamity. Besides, one country cannot always expect to win. If that were to happen, interest in golf would evaporate.”

Arnold Palmer of the USA
Arnie was practically indestructible during a dominant U.S. run in the 1960s.


Hagen is proven prophetic as the U.S. wins 12 out of the next 14 Cups, and few contests are close. Arnold Palmer goes 16-3-1 during a U.S. unbeaten run from ’61 through ’67.
Interest in the Cup wanes.

Jack Nicklaus, Tony Jacklin, the concession, 1969 Ryder Cup
Jack famously gave Jacklin a two-footer to end the 1969 match in a draw. Later, they teamed to build a Florida course fittingly dubbed “The Concession.”

U.S.  14
Great Britain & Ireland  14

Jack Nicklaus, 29 and playing in his first Ryder Cup, famously concedes a two-footer on the 18th to Tony Jacklin, ending the match in a first-ever draw. Downright gentlemanly, but…
still not much heat between these teams yet.


The U.S. reels off four consecutive wins. To level the playing field, in 1979 the GB&I team is expanded to all of continental Europe.
This proves pivotal.


The U.S. defeats Europe three straight times…but the Euros are a noticeably improved squad. Seve Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido become the first continental Europeans to join the fray. One of them would soon make his mark.

Europe  16 ½
U.S.  11 ½

Ballesteros goes 3-1-1 to power his team to a breakthrough win at the Belfry, dealing the U.S. its first loss since 1957.
The seeds of a rivalry have sprouted.

Europe  15
U.S.  13

The U.S. suffers its first loss on home soil—at team captain Nicklaus’s Muirfield Village, no less—when Seve caps a 4-1 week by clinching the Cup with a tight Sunday win over Curtis Strange. Team USA is ticked when the Euros celebrate on the 18th green.
Getting hot!

Europe  14
U.S.  14

Europe enters Sunday with a two-point lead, and in a battle of headliners, Seve clips Paul Azinger 1-up in the opening singles match. Europe secures a tie to keep the Cup when 41-year-old Christy O’Connor hits one of the Cup’s most famous shots—a two-iron from 229 yards to four feet.
More fuel for the fire.

Bernhard-Langer-1991 Ryder Cup
In ’91, Langer missed a six-footer to close what was then regarded as the fiercest Ryder Cup ever.

U.S.  14 ½
Europe  13 ½

With the Gulf War as a backdrop, some members of the U.S. team wear camo hats during a practice round, fighter jets buzz over the opening ceremonies, and the media dubs this Cup “The War by the Shore.” Kiawah Island’s dunes allow frenzied U.S. fans to gather above the action and scream support for the home team—and invective at the visitors. After its nail-biting win, a delirious American squad tumbles into the Atlantic. Not cool, thought the Euros.
The Ryder Cup has arrived like never before.

Payne Stewart, 1993 Ryder Cup celebration
Shortly after the U.S. took down the Euros at the Belfry in ’93, Payne Stewart took down another prize.

U.S.  15
Europe  13

Europe returns to the Belfry hoping to rekindle the magic of ’85, but Tom Watson fields a veteran-laden team with six future Hall of Famers. Experience pays off: 51-year-old Ray Floyd goes 3-1 and rookie Davis Love III completes a U.S. Sunday rally by beating Costantino Rocca in singles. This remains the last time the U.S. won a Cup in Europe.

Europe 14 ½
U.S. 13 ½

Captain Bernard Gallacher’s Euro team trails by two points entering Sunday, but for the first time in the event’s history, they rally on the final day to win. Nick Faldo and Philip Walton steal matches on the 18th hole to clinch the upset. Europe’s second-ever victory on U.S. soil gets Gallacher (0-10 as a player and captain) off the schneid.
A new era of Euro domination begins.

Europe 14 ½
U.S. 13 ½

Europe builds a five-point lead after two days at Valderrama, a homecoming for captain Ballesteros, and hangs on through singles. Colin Montgomerie goes 3-1-1, including the clinching half-point on Sunday. Rookie Tiger Woods enters as America’s great hope, but he struggles to a 1-3-1 mark, including a singles loss to Rocca.

Justin Leonard, 1999 Ryder Cup, Brookline
Leonard’s putt (and his teammates’ premature celebration) in 1999 live in Cup lore.

U.S. 14 ½
Europe 13 ½

Brookline! Europe leads 10-6 entering the final day and needing just four points to keep the Cup. But the U.S. mounts a furious rally. Justin Leonard drops an astonishing 45-foot putt, setting off a wild celebration on the green…but the match isn’t technically finished, as José Maria Olazábal still has a 22-footer of his own to extend it. He misses, the U.S. rejoices and Europe forever notes that early celebration.
The Ryder Cup reaches a boil.

Europe 15 ½
U.S. 12 ½

The match is tied 8-8 entering Sunday singles, when Euro captain Sam Torrance puts his best players out in early matches, while Curtis Strange counters with the opposite approach for the U.S., saving his big guns for the end. Torrance’s gambit works, and Tiger Woods, playing in the final match, 
is rendered moot when Europe clinches midday.

Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, 2004 Ryder Cup
The Odd Couple: Woods and Mickelson formed a superstar tandem in ’04, but flopped spectacularly in a record-breaking European rout.

Europe  18 ½
U.S.  9 ½

Swashbuckling captain Hal Sutton pairs Woods and Phil Mickelson, and it blows up in his face. The top two players lose two points on Friday, and the U.S. never recovers while getting routed in a home game. Sergio Garcia goes 4-0-1 to lead Bernhard Langer’s European team. It’s Europe’s largest-ever margin of victory.

2004 Ryder Cup, Sergio Garcia, celebration
Sergio and Co. delivered for captain Langer in 2004, and again in another runaway in 2006.

Europe  18 ½
U.S.  9 ½

The first Cup staged in Ireland is another European runaway, as they lead 10-6 entering Sunday and quickly slam the door. Darren Clarke, Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia combine to go 10-1-0.
The heat rises, along with U.S. frustration.

Boo Weekley, 2008 Ryder Cup
Boo’s crew proved too much for Europe at Valhalla in ’08.

U.S.  16 ½
Europe  11 ½

Despite playing without Woods, who was recovering from knee surgery, captain Paul Azinger’s pod system invigorates the Americans and confounds the favored Euros. A pumped-up and loose (see: Boo Weekley riding his driver like a horse) U.S. squad rolls.

Ryder Cup 2010 - Singles Matches, Graeme McDowell
McDowell carried all of Europe on his shoulders in the final match in 2010 — and delivered.

Europe  14 ½
U.S.  13 ½

A soggy week at Wales’ Celtic Manor leads to stop-and-start delays and a Monday finish. It all comes down to the anchor match, where Graeme McDowell beats Hunter Mahan 3 and 1 to win it for Europe. The matches again trend toward…
pulsating, down-to-the-wire affairs.

Ian Poulter, 2012 Ryder Cup
On Saturday at Medinah, Poulter raged. The rest of his team joined him one day later, after Europe’s biggest comeback win ever.

Europe  14 ½
U.S.  13 ½

The U.S. has the Cup in its clutches after building a four-point lead heading into Sunday singles. But Ian Poulter—Poulter!—steals a late match Saturday night, and Europe runs over the U.S. on Sunday, stunning the Americans in the “Miracle at Medinah.”

Tom Watson, 2014 Ryder Cup
Watson was unable to pull the U.S. out of a tailspin in 2014.

Europe  16 ½
U.S.  11 ½

Rookie Patrick Reed shushes the Euro crowd at Gleneagles, but the home team roars all weekend. Europe’s champagne still flows as Mickelson, in the post-event press conference, takes a very public swipe at captain Tom Watson’s leadership. Afterward, an exasperated U.S. squad launches a “task force” to reboot its entire Ryder Cup process.
Everyone—and everything—is white hot.

2016 Ryder Cup, Rory McIlroy
A boisterous McIlroy wasn’t enough to fend off a rejuvenated U.S. team in 2016.

U.S. 17
Europe 11

The U.S. sweeps the opening session and never trails, but emotions broil throughout. Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy exchange first-pumping histrionics and primal screams in what has to be the most demonstrative singles match in golf history. Reed wins it 1 up and the Yanks cruise to the Cup, vindicating the task force and solidifying Team USA’s all-time series lead: 26-13-2. What to expect in 2018?
An Inferno.