Revisiting "the envelope," one of the Ryder Cup's most compelling subplots
With the halfway point between Ryder Cups 40 and 41 (Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 2016) approaching, it feels like time to get a brief dose of the great event. One of “the fifth major’s” big moments was the expansion of the American opponent -- Great Britain & Ireland -- into continental Europe. It took place beginning with the 1979 Ryder Cup, played at The Greenbrier, and that first United States versus Europe matchup ended on Sept. 16, 1979.
As an anniversary in golf, 36 years is a pretty good number, symbolizing a double dose of two 18-hole rounds. As of 1979, it had been 36-plus years of American dominance in the Ryder Cup that prompted the idea of expanding the GB&I team into Europe. The biennial match needed a competitive shot in the arm, but that first year didn’t do much. Seve Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido of Spain were the first two non-GB&I players, but they were 1-3 as a team and both lost their singles match. The U.S. won 17-11 and upped its record to 19-3-1.
The Americans had already had one change in opponents when the Great Britain team added Ireland in 1973. After the European expansion for 1979, the U.S. would win the next two Ryder Cups before the Europeans won in 1985 and turned the event on its head with a dominant run of its own that it still enjoys.
The 1979 event was also notable for being the first year “the envelope” was used at a Ryder Cup. Under this format, each captain would put one player’s name in an envelope, and in the event a player from the other side couldn’t play due to injury or other health reasons, the player in the envelope from the other side would sit out in singles and each side would get a half point. The names in the envelopes are as closely guarded as the formulas for Coca-Cola or KFC. They are only revealed if they are used. Captains hand them over when they do the singles draw, and if the envelopes aren’t used, they are destroyed so totally that no one could decipher who the sacrificial benched players would have been. And don’t bother asking the captains. So far none of them have voiced who they would have sat out, which would have revealed who they thought was the inferior golfer on their team.
The envelope was used in 1991 when American Steve Pate was too sore from a traffic accident on Wednesday of Ryder Cup week to play Sunday. Euro captain Bernard Gallacher had tucked David Gilford’s name away and he sat out in the singles draw.
Then there is the infamous 1993 match in which Lanny Wadkins volunteered to take one for the team and told captain Tom Watson to stuff his name away. When Sam Torrance couldn’t play due to a sore left foot, Wadkins went to the sidelines. In both years the Americans went on to win.