30 years after the last U.S. Ryder Cup win in Europe, revisiting what went right
"At this instant, a cool, cloudy English autumn Sunday afternoon in September of 1993, Love wasn't thinking about throwing up in a golf sense. That would come later. Right now, standing in the middle of the 18th fairway at the Belfry, a golf course that looked and felt like a Florida resort but happened to be located in the English midlands, Love was thinking about literally throwing up in front of several million people."
—John Feinstein, A Good Walk Spoiled
When the Ryder Cup is held overseas in the 21st century, it's become a tradition to hear the words "The U.S. hasn't won a Ryder Cup on European soil in x years." At Marco Simone, site of this year's Ryder Cup, x = 30. Not since 1993, when captain Tom Watson led his charges to a 15-13 win at the Belfry in England, have the Americans been able to hoist the Cup on the road. If you want to take the math a step further, it's also true that they've only done it once in 42 years. They've come close twice—in '97 at Valderrama, in 2010 at Celtic Manor—but otherwise, it's been a history of blowouts. In 2014, they brought Tom Watson back in an attempt to recreate that '93 magic, only to watch Paul McGinley and the Europeans run roughshod over them in one of the most disastrous cups ever for the U.S. And most recently, in Paris 2018, Jim Furyk used the newfound template from the otherwise effective task force that grew out of the Gleneagles loss, and promptly bit the dust. To win a Ryder Cup in Europe, against the home team, can now safely be called one of the hardest feats in sport.
Which begs the question: What went right the last time it happened?
In a strange way, 1993 is a Ryder Cup that gets somewhat lost in history. It came after the European resurgence of the '80s, and also after the infamous War on the Shore at Kiawah in 1991, when the U.S. finally wrenched the Cup back from European hands. Later in the '90s, Seve's turn as captain in Valderrama and the American comeback at Brookline stand out most clearly in memory, leaving '93 just slightly shrouded in the fog of time. Strangely, the most resonant moment of that Cup happened at a gala dinner the night before play began, when the U.S. refused to sign menus for the 800 attendees (the European team signed). Sam Torrance approached the U.S. captain Tom Watson and asked him to sign his menu, and according to Watson, he told Torrance that he'd rather sign in the U.S. team room later, because to sign any autograph would set off a frenzy of autograph seekers from the more than 800 guests as the dinner that he wanted to avoid. Torrance slouched away feeling embarrassed, and was supported publicly by his captain Bernard Gallacher. Watson, whose secondary goal after winning the Cup was to defuse the tensions that had defined the '89 and especially '91 Ryder Cups, was horrified and angry when the story broke out.
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And if that's not the chief memory of '93, it's another mini-controversy that arose when several players made public comments about not wanting to visit the White House to meet Bill Clinton, whose policies—particularly raising taxes—they disagreed with. Payne Stewart even quoted Paul Azinger as saying that Clinton was a "draft dodger," which infuriated Azinger, who was publicly more diplomatic. In the end, they visited—Watson insisted—and it was fine, but the story lives on.
Unlike his second try at the captaincy in 2014, which came as a surprise, the legendary Watson—the post-Nicklaus superstar of the sport—was an obvious choice for the Americans. In fact, when he visited with the PGA of America to discuss the job early in the Ryder Cup cycle, he came prepared to pitch himself, and was promptly offered the job. Some of the traits that emerged in the loss at Gleneagles, such as his private demeanor, his gruffness, and his penchant for relying on his gut, were also present in '93. But to read about the captaincy now, there were differences, too; he spent a lot of time studying statistics, thinking about his captain's picks in what seems like a more analytical way, and trying to bond with his players. It's also true that despite his relative isolation from his fellow players, he was much closer in age to the players than he would be 21 years later.
His team would have four rookies—Davis Love III, U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen, John Cook, and Jim Gallagher Jr.—and to supplement that relative inexperience, he added 51-year-old Raymond Floyd and 43-year-old Lanny Wadkins, both veterans of seven Ryder Cups, as his captain's picks. (The final pick came down to Wadkins and Curtis Strange, who didn't play well enough at the PGA Championship to make the cut; Watson later said that he never even considered John Daly for a spot, citing his "give-up attitude.") The rest of his team included Azinger, Stewart, Fred Couples, Tom Kite, Corey Pavin, and Chip Beck.
The Europeans were still in the era of repeat captains, and on the heels of Jacklin's four transformative Ryder Cups, Bernard Gallacher had taken over in '91. Despite saying he was done, he returned to the helm at the Belfry, and would, in fact, captain once more in 1995. His team was led by many of the stalwarts who had led the revolution of the '80s, including Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Torrance, Jose Maria Olazabal, and Seve Ballesteros.
On Friday morning, Watson printed the following in his "thought for the day" on the American schedules: "Remember, everything they invented, we perfected."
As documented in Feinstein's A Good Walk Spoiled, in which the Ryder Cup is largely retold through the eyes of Watson and Love, Love's legs were shaking when he took his first tee shot in the first alternate shot session on Friday morning. Nevertheless, he and Tom Kite managed to do what had been mostly impossible for the Americans for almost a decade—beating the Spanish armada team of Ballesteros and Olazabal. (As a node to Ballesteros' alleged habit of coughing during his opponents' backswings, some of the American wives gave Love and Kite a package of cough lozenges before the match, urging them to offer them to Seve the first time it happened.) Wadkins and Pavin won the first match against Torrance and Mark James, but in the other two, Europe dominated, with Woosnam and Langer routing Azinger and Stewart, and Faldo and Colin Montgomerie hammering Floyd and Couples.
Paul Azinger of the United States and Nick Faldo of the European team during the singles matches at the 30th Ryder Cup Matches on 26 September 1993 at The Belfry in Wishaw, Warwickshire, England. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
In the afternoon fourball, Ballesteros and Olazabal got their revenge on Kite and Love, and in a series of close matches, Europe established a narrow 4.5-3.5 lead after the first day. (The last match actually finished on Saturday morning, when Azinger and Faldo dueled it out on the 18th hole, eventually halving when Faldo sank a clutch 10-foot par putt.)
On Saturday morning, things turned dangerous for the Americans. Europe always seems to thrive in alternate shot at home, and this was no exception; up and down the lineup, the Americans were blown away. When the dust settled, only Floyd and Stewart had won, but the Europeans had won the other three matches, including the third straight battle between the Spanish Armada and Love/Kite. They needed a quick comeback, and they got it. Chip Beck and John Cook led the charge with a win over the previously undefeated Faldo and Montgomerie, and Floyd and Stewart closed it out in the anchor match with the whole team watching—including Couples, who lost his match and intended to head inside in frustration before Love told him how much it would mean to the team to come watch the final match—to give the U.S. a 3-1 session and a deficit of just one heading into singles.
The plan all along, stated overtly by Watson to his team, was to stay close and hope that superior depth would see them through in the singles session. And even though it had looked like a potential rout around noon on Saturday, they had accomplished the task in the end.
On Sunday, Sam Torrance's infected toe became so bothersome that he had to sit out. That meant Watson had to choose someone on his own team to sit, and Lanny Wadkins made his choice easy when he volunteered—he was a captain's pick, he argued, and hadn't played well to begin with. Watson accepted the gesture, and the Torrance-Wadkins pairing went down as a half point for each team. A bit of drama ensued when Peter Baker's daughter came down with a mystery illness which might have eliminated him from the lineup as well (under the rules, that would have forced Europe to forfeit the entire Ryder Cup, though the Americans had already talked about overriding the rule), but his daughter ended up with only an ear infection, and the show went on.
Early on, the American plan seemed to be in shambles, and in fact Europe would win 3.5 points out of the first five matches. At that point, though, the American depth began to shine through. Stewart eat James, Gallagher took down a flailing Ballesteros, Floyd beat Olazabal, and Kite demolished Langer. With both teams knotted at 12.5 points, the match seemed to be coming down to the 18th hole, where Love and Costantino Rocca were all square. It came down to a six-foot par putt for Love, and tensions rose as he backed off. When he returned to the ball, he sent it in, sending his teammates into delirium. The celebration was such that Love had to run afterward to catch up to Rocca to shake his hand, and when he found him, the Italian had tears in his eyes. The two embraced.
The match was officially clinched when Floyd, 3-up on Olazabal with three to play, managed to recover from two lost holes and close him out on 18 when Olazabal drove into the water. (In the final match, after the outcome was no longer in doubt, Azinger was frustrated when Faldo made him putt out a six-footer for the half point. He made the putt, but it added to the bitterness between the two men. Azinger was also feeling an acute pain in his shoulder, which would turn out to be non-Hodgkin lymphoma.)
As part of his preparation, Watson had spoken with Kansas basketball coach Roy Williams, searching for any piece of advice on leadership. As documented by Feinstein, Williams told him to "listen for the silence"—a sign, on European soil, that they were doing things right. When they won on Sunday, Love, who had heard the story, approached Watson and asked him if he could hear the silence around them. Watson called it "as sweet a sound as I think I've ever heard."
The silence didn't last through the evening. Both teams came together for the victory dinner, revelry ensued, and it's worth noting for posterity that the dinner menus on both sides were autographed without incident.