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Letter from Europe

The most influential golf tournament you've never heard of

Nearly every modern European Ryder Cup star cut his teeth at the European Amateur Team Championship, a 65-year-old event that has become an Indispensable venue to learn team match play
July 05, 2024

So yes, it would be something of a stretch to proclaim this a mystery of the totally bewildering variety. It hardly compares with the legend of Bigfoot, the existence or otherwise of the Loch Ness Monster or the fate of the crew on the Marie Celeste. But what is for sure is that the recent and by now lengthy European dominance of the biennial Ryder Cup matches continues to perplex, if not stun, professional golfing circles. And yes, given the overwhelming events of last September in Italy, the wave of Old World victories sees no sign of ending anytime soon. What started as a puzzlement became a real trend and is now viewed as almost an inevitability. Not since 1993 has America won the trophy on foreign soil.

All of which begs questions: Routinely pitted against U.S. squads armed with what appears overwhelming talent, how have perennial underdogs Europe come up with 12 wins versus only six defeats over the last four decades or so? Why is it that, more often than not, the statistically superior Americans find the contrasting conditions, atmosphere and pressures of the Ryder Cup so difficult to handle?

On that specific point, let’s knock one thing on the head right away. According to former captain Paul McGinley—whose iconic Ryder Cup status was initially ensured when he holed the winning putt for Europe at The Belfry in 2002—the explanation for this apparent anomaly is simple: In the heat of Ryder Cup moments, World Rankings are all but irrelevant.

“I have a saying that you have to prepare for an exam,” says the Irishman. “You’re playing in an Open, that’s an exam. You’re playing in a U.S. Open, that’s a different exam, a different skill set. So when you are playing tournament golf, you are constantly playing different exams. When you are playing in the Ryder Cup, the exam changes again. Just because your World Ranking is, say, five, it doesn’t necessarily translate into you being a good match player. It doesn’t translate into you playing well in an 18-hole sprint. It doesn’t translate into coping with a partner and playing foursomes. And it doesn’t translate overall into being comfortable in a team environment.”

Indeed, closer analysis surely reveals no singularly persuasive reason for this near-dominance by supposedly out-matched but eternally plucky bands of multi-cultural Europeans. Which makes sense. Different teams, different venues and different captains mean that a variety of factors are more than likely in play every two years.

Hang on though. There is at least one thread running throughout this modern phenomenon. While the addition of continental Europeans in 1979 clearly provoked a transformation of what had previously been a near-moribund event, those newcomers—in common with their Great Britain and Ireland counterparts—typically arrived with valuable and extensive involvement of team competition gained even before they turned professional.

No one who has played in the modern Ryder Cup ever claims it is anything other than the most profound experience of their careers, but familiarity with something similar has proved to be beneficial. Step forward the European Boys, the (now defunct) European Youths and European Amateur Team Championships. All run by the European Golf Association, all three have seen future Ryder Cuppers represent their countries—a crucial aspect—in six-man team competition that involves an initial 36 holes of stroke-play qualifying followed by match play made up of (two) foursomes and (five) singles. The 2024 edition of the men’s event, the 41st playing overall, takes place next week at the Royal Park I Roveri in Italy, with Spain attempting to defend its title.

Just how influential might these events be? Well, by way of most recent example, only one of the 12 men who made up last year’s successful European Ryder Cup side (Tyrrell Hatton) did not play in at least one of those three EGA team events. Adding to that influence, skipper Luke Donald (for England) and all four of his assistants, Edoardo Molinari (Italy), Francesco Molinari (Italy), Nicolas Colsaerts (Belgium) and Jose Maria Olazabal (Spain), can boast the same background and upbringing.

Step back further and you can see this on-going influence, both on and off the course, for some time. As well as Donald and Olazabal, future European captains Mark James (England), Colin Montgomerie (Scotland), Thomas Bjorn (Denmark), McGinley (Ireland), Padraig Harrington (Ireland) and Henrik Stenson (Sweden) all represented their native lands in those European team events, the men’s version debuting in 1959 as a biennial competition that became a yearly affair starting in 2013.

More specifically, many future Ryder Cuppers have enjoyed amateur success at the European level. Per-Ulrik Johansson (Sweden, 1983), Peter Baker (England, 1985), Andrew Coltart (Scotland 1987), Ignacio Garrido (Spain, 1990), Stephen Gallacher (Scotland, 1992), Donald (1995), Sergio Garcia (Spain, 1996, 1997), Thomas Pieters (Belgium, 2010), Jon Rahm (Spain, 2011) and Nicolai Hojgaard (Denmark, 2017) all played in winning teams at the Boys Championship.

Ronan Rafferty (Ireland, 1979), Philip Walton (Ireland, 1979), Montgomerie (1982), Niclas Fasth (Sweden, 1992) and Alex Noren (Sweden, 2002) were members of victorious squads in the Youths event that ended in 2006.

Paul Way (England, 1981), Walton (1983), Montgomerie (1985), Gallacher (1995), Garcia (1997), Rory McIlroy (Ireland, 2007), Shane Lowry (Ireland, 2007, 2008), Tommy Fleetwood (England, 2010), Rahm (2014), Robert MacIntyre (Scotland, 2016) and Ludvig Aberg (Sweden, 2019) were all integral parts of successful Men’s squads.

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Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley are just some of the recent Ryder Cup stalwarts who first gained team golf experience representing their countries at the European Amateur Team Championship.

All in all then, this thing has gone way beyond coincidence. Combined, these international contests have made a key contribution to the camaraderie that somehow pervades the potent mix of nationalities, temperaments and attitudes that come together to make up European Ryder Cup teams.

“There is no doubt that playing for England in those European team events helped me when I got to first the Walker Cup, then the Ryder Cup,” says Donald, who will revise his captaincy role for Europe at Bethpage Black next year. “Match play is rarely a comfortable experience, as is wearing a national jersey. You’re not just playing for yourself. You don’t want to let others down. You want to contribute. All of those things are good to have experienced as often as possible before you get to the Ryder Cup.”

Not surprisingly, there is much support for Donald’s view.

“I can say I 100 percent benefitted from my amateur days playing for Ireland in those European Championships when I got to the Ryder Cup,” Harrington confirms. “I knew how to interact with others when they won their match and I didn’t. Or vice versa. I knew how to be with a partner who played badly when I played well. Or vice versa.

“The camaraderie needs to be worked on,” he continues. “So it helps to have that early base established. There have been guys like Ian Poulter, who didn’t play amateur golf. But the vast majority played for their countries in the European team events. So an affinity with team golf is built. I see that as essential going forward. There is less ‘them and us’ within the European team when it comes to the Ryder Cup.”

Of course, that ability to gel and work together as one unit rather than 12 individuals has long been noted as one of Europe’s biggest strengths.

“Playing for England in those European events gave me an insight into what being part of a team really means,” says Englishman Peter Baker, a member of the 1993 European Ryder Cup side. “Competing for your country as an amateur is probably as close as you can get before you actually tee-up against the Americans. It helps so much to know you are in something as a team and feeling the sort of togetherness and team spirit you need to be successful.”

“When you are the underdogs, you need any edge you can get,” says Stenson, a veteran of five Ryder Cups. “Being tight as a group is part of that, which has to stem from the European Team Championships. There is nothing like winning as a team. It teaches you things. You have to find your place and your role. It’s just a different dynamic. Coming into that sort of environment with no previous experience I have to think would be really difficult. All those little things add up and affect the end result.”

'Competing for your country as an amateur is probably as close as you can get before you actually tee-up against the Americans. It helps so much to know you are in something as a team and feeling the sort of togetherness and team spirit you need to be successful.'
—Peter Baker

As is the case with so many high-performing athletes, the fear of losing tends to outweigh the joy of winning. So, perhaps perversely, there can be stimulation and so long-term benefit to be had from early defeat. Many years on, Stenson continues to live with the deep disappointment he felt following defeat to Englishman (and future DP World Tour player) Shaun Webster in the 1994 Boys Team Championship.

“Agonizing,” is how the 2016 Open champion describes his youthful devastation. “My loss meant the team lost, too,” he says. “I felt like I had let everyone down. But the feeling has always motivated me. It was definitely not something I wanted to experience again in the Ryder Cup.”

The most commonly cited advantage Europe has in Ryder Cups is the familiarity all nationalities have with foursomes play. What many see as golf’s most difficult format is an integral part of the amateur team championships. Since 1985, when Europe won the Ryder Cup for the first time, the Old World has accumulated a 13-point advantage (82½-69½) in what America calls “alternate shot.”

“There is no doubt that the experience our players gain as amateurs playing in the various European Team Championships has a knock-on benefit when it comes to the Ryder Cup,” says Edoardo Molinari. “Which makes sense. Playing match play for your country is not like playing for yourself. Then there is the benefit you get from playing foursomes golf early in your career. That isn’t something the American players get to do. All of which can only help our cause, if only for knowing how to feel comfortable in what can be an uncomfortable environment. It’s a great learning experience, especially when you are playing alongside a partner who is performing a lot better then you are yourself.”

Still, Ryder Cups can also be won and lost off the course, as well as on. Yes, the Europeans become as one during Ryder Cups, but recognizing their individuality within that ultimate goal is another key learned at amateur level.

“Playing in a team after months of playing as an individual is not easy,” says McGinley, who led Europe to comfortable victory at Gleneagles in 2014. “As captain, I tried to preserve the individual mind-set. I took away the formal dinners. There were no compulsory team dinners. That’s not what they do on tour. So I gave them ownership of their own time, within the team environment. Some players are not made to be part of teams. You must always take account of that.”

That McGinley was successful in his aim is epitomized by the experience of Gallacher. Playing on home ground 10 years ago, the Scot was the only member of the European team who failed to contribute to his side’s 16½-point total. But he remained, at least in his own mind, an important member of the squad.

“I was in winning six-man sides at Boys and Men’s European Championships,” Gallacher says. “And in both there was a great team spirit. I’ve also been in teams that were unsuccessful. They had little cliques and factions within them. If you have that going on, winning is almost impossible. I took that with me into the 2014 Ryder Cup. I didn’t personally have the best time at Gleneagles, but my knowledge of what team golf is all about made me part of our victory. I was proud to be playing with the badge on my chest.”

So it’s all about match play and team experience really, something the Europeans have plenty of, even before they arrive at the Ryder Cup. The Americans? Not so much. But McGinley for one sees that changing over the coming years.

“The NCAA Championship now has a team match-play element,” he says. “That will help them down the road. In future, they will be better prepared when they arrive at the Ryder Cup.”

In addition to the men’s team event being played next week in Italy, the European Boys Championship takes place July 9-13 at the Diamond Golf & Country Club in Austria. (Simultaneously, the Women’s Championship is being staged at the Real Sociedad Hípica Española Club de Campo, Spain).

Pay attention to all of the above. Names like Calum Scott of Scotland, newly crowned British Amateur champion Jacob Skov Olesen from Denmark, Swede Simon Hovdal and Jose Luis Ballester. who has followed Spanish compatriot Jon Rahm to Arizona State, could soon enough be more widely familiar if and when they tee-up in future Ryder Cups wearing Europe’s colors. Strong chances are, at least some of them will make it. It’s a tradition.