The 1983 Ryder Cup and the Start of a Great Rivalry

The 1983 Ryder Cup was my first, the beginning of what I’ve come to view as my “Lucky 13.” I haven’t been to all the Matches since, just most of them.

That year was the first for Curtis Strange, too. I confess, he and I shared a similar misconception at the time: What’s the big deal? A colleague of mine assessed such vinegary young souls by saying, “He knows not that he knows not.” Rory McIlroy was far from the first novitiate to rather saucily put the Ryder Cup in what he believed to be its proper place. Nothing more than a glorified exhibition, you say? Exactly right, until you’ve been in one. Or, in my case, been to one.

It was easy to get the impression that hardly anyone cared since hardly anyone did, except those players who had a little wear on their treads. They were ready to burn rubber. Nowadays, there are so many spectators that the lines at the metal detectors back up like beach traffic on the Jersey Turnpike. In 1983, not so much. Tickets were $20 and there were plenty available at the gate. Jay Haas, this year’s Presidents Cup captain, was on his first team that year, too, playing the Wake Forest alumni version of Butch Cassidy to Strange’s Sundance. “At PGA National, they have two or three other courses and members were going out in carts and playing,” Haas once told me through that guileless smile of his. “They didn’t give a rip.”

After getting blown out in ’79 and ‘81 with their expanded talent pool, the European Tour was desperate, the Matches themselves in a forlorn state. Ken Schofield, the tour’s executive director, and Lord Darby, president of the British PGA, begged Tony Jacklin to captain the ’83 team. In turn, Jacklin begged Seve Ballesteros, who had been passed over in ’81 because of a dust up over appearance fees, to return to the fold.

To Seve, all grievances were a matter of manhood not money, even if money usually got the ball rolling, so it was no easy sell for Jacklin. He told Ballesteros, “Seve, I can’t do it without you.” Ballesteros, naturally, saw the wisdom of his own indispensability and, thus, one of the great alliances in the history of the Ryder Cup was formed. Two black sheep would lead Europe to the Promised Land and they’d fly the Concorde to get there.

The Matches went into the Sunday singles tied for the first time ever on American soil. The matter wasn’t decided until Lanny Wadkins, in one of just two matches left on the course and in front a crowd of, oh, literally hundreds, played his wedge on the 18th to two feet as lightning flashed on the horizon behind him. The most celebrated shot, however, was produced not in winning but in losing.

I was covering for Golf World. In those days, the magazine was housed just off U.S. 1 in North Carolina in a building that looked more suited to knitting cuffs and collars than printing a four-color weekly. We had a staff of three along with a rather severe looking librarian/fact checker who I’m convinced was driven to an early grave by the sheer volume of our inaccuracies. When I returned from West Palm Beach, our managing editor had just one question for me: Had I witnessed Ballesteros’ 3-wood? In fact, I had.

Jacklin decided to put his strength out early Sunday and Ballesteros drew Fuzzy Zoeller in the opening singles. ABC wasn’t even on air yet. All square on 18, Ballesteros smother-hooked his drive into deep Bermuda rough. He advanced his second only as far as a fairway bunker, still 245 yards from the green. I was standing beside the bunker when Ballesteros took out his 3-wood. The lip was three feet high then and grows an inch or two with every passing year. My first thought was: He’s out of his freakin’ mind, or words to that effect. But, this was Seve and his high cut reached the front fringe to save a half point.

After all was said and done, Ballesteros stormed into the loser’s locker room and declared victory. (They’d lost by only one point, after all.) Two years later, he was spraying champagne from the roof of The Belfry. After the comparative solitude of the Palm Beaches, Strange was surprised by the crowds in Sutton Coldfield. “You’d hear a roar go up over here, then a roar go up over there,” Strange told me. “All of a sudden, we were getting our asses kicked.”

With a couple of notable exceptions, it hasn’t stopped since.