Ben Wright: Oddly Matched

“British Captain Summoned before PGA Executive Committee, Fired for Lack of Effort in First-year Ryder Cup Debacle.” So screamed the fictitious tabloid headline I concocted at the conclusion of the 1976 “Real Ryder Cup Matches.”

Let me explain. While covering golf for CBS that year, Jack Whitaker and I conceived the idea of an annual series of 18-hole matches between us—no quarter asked or given—staged only on the game’s best courses, a lineup that included Merion, Shinnecock Hills, Bel-Air, St. Andrews, Muirfield, Wentworth, Sunningdale and Royal St. George’s.

Our first match took place on the West Course at Winged Foot, where the great golf promoter Fred Corcoran had a house and served as our referee. Winged Foot would become a site for numerous Wright-Whitaker matches over the next few years, and Fred’s home always made a fine pit stop for us to joke around and scheme up those pretend bulletins to an eagerly awaiting press.

The 18th on the West Course at Winged Foot. Photo by L. Lambrecht.

At the end of each year, the winner was privileged to demand of his vanquished victim a piece of sterling silver, regardless of expense. Whitaker won that inaugural “Real Ryder Cup” and requested an antique cocktail shaker. By good fortune I found a gorgeous specimen in a Woburn, England, antique shop. I believe Jack still serves martinis from it.

But Whitaker never won another season of matches—not after I stopped trying to match the old Silver Fox into the wee small hours prior to every encounter. Because Jack was a member of Shinnecock, victory was always particularly sweet at that venerable Long Island club. It became my favorite course on the East Coast; in fact, I think I now prefer it to even Cypress Point.

My headline that year screamed, “Bonfires Lit across Britain to Celebrate British Captain’s Triumph at Shinnecock Hills; PGA Summons American Captain to Explain Real Ryder Cup Debacle.” The prize from Whitaker was a salver with claw feet, suitably inscribed: “Ben Wright—1977—Real Ryder Cup Champion.” I have been proudly serving drinks on it ever since.

But the victory of which I am most proud came at the end of the third year of the series in 1978, with Corcoran again the referee at Winged Foot. Early the previous day, Pat Summerall and I had set off at dawn from Los Angeles. That evening we met up with Tom Brookshier, Pat’s teammate on CBS’ NFL broadcast team, for cocktails and dinner at The Palm in New York City.

Some hours later, Pat, Tom and I climbed into a horse-pulled coach driven by a giant Irishman named Michael O’Ryan. We quickly realized we enjoyed O’Ryan’s company, so we asked him to join us for drinks on arrival at our hotel.

“I can’t possibly leave my horse,” Michael protested.

“We’ll take him, too!” we chorused.

We led that poor creature all the way up to the hotel’s glass doors, which opened automatically. Each time they did, the unfortunate animal reared and neighed piteously. Finally realizing it was time to call it a night, we bade O’Ryan farewell. Somehow, I prevailed against Whitaker the following afternoon.

That year Whitaker gave me a cocktail shaker, curiously shaped like an artillery shell. On its base was an even more curious inscription: “Happy anniversary. Every time. Bottoms up—Rene—April 13, 1948.” As far as I know, Jack was not acquainted with this mysterious Rene; I’m not sure he was even aware of the strange message.

Of course when Whitaker moved over to ABC, all our fun went out the window. (“Nation Mourns Passing of Real Ryder Cup Matches; British Captain Devastated.”) Our antics may have been puerile, you might say. But I have never had more fun—and isn’t that what golf is supposed to be all about?