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European Ryder Cup courses

04 September, 2014

European Ryder Cup courses

A brief look at the European Ryder Cup venues through the years

September 2014

Surely nobody could argue that the change in 1979 which allowed Great Britain & Ireland to compete against the USA as Team Europe in the biennial Ryder Cup matches against the USA was anything other than a smart move – and probably the most important factor in turning the modern day version of the competition into the undeniable commercial success that it is today.

Remember, up to that point in history, the American team had won twenty-one, drawn one and lost only three of the previous 25 events which had been held since 1927, when Walter Hagen and Ted Ray captained their respective professional teams in the inaugural tournament at Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts.

If, however, you think the inclusion of golfers from continental Europe had an immediate effect on the outcome of the tournament then think again because, incredible as it might sound, it took another six years – and three further defeats against the United States – before the tide finally turned with a resounding 16½ - 11½ victory on the Brabazon course at the Belfry.

And so – not to put too fine a point on things – the Top 100 Golf Courses look at the fourteen European courses which have hosted the Ryder Cup can be split into two distinct groupings: what might be termed “the dark ages before the Belfry” (between 1929 and 1981) and the “new dawn after the Belfry” (from 1985 up to the present time).

The Alister MacKenzie-designed Moortown course in Leeds was the venue for the first series of Ryder Cup matches contested on this side of the Atlantic in 1929 and the home side recorded a 7-5 win against the visiting team. Surprisingly, even in those very early days, the fervent nature of the spectators was quite apparent, as Mark Rowlinson notes in his Globetrotter Golfer’s Guide England and Wales: “The cheering of the crowd of 10,000 during play was every bit as loud as that at football matches and partisan behaviour was apparently no different from that in the most recent encounters.”

The next two Ryder Cup games in England were played at Southport & Ainsdale in 1933 and 1937, with Great Britain winning the first match 6½-5½ and losing the second match 8-4 to a team captained for the sixth and final time by Walter Hagen. S&A, as it’s affectionately known locally, is a fine course (ranked just outside the current GB&I Top 100) which James Finegan described in his book All Courses Great and Small as follows: “this links, laid out by James Braid in 1923, is endearingly old-fashioned, with its blind and semi-blind shots, low mounding… and an occasional cross bunker deceptively short of the putting surface… it is exhilarating golf from start to finish.”

Due to the intervention of World War II, the next series of Ryder Cup matches on home soil didn’t take place until 1949, when Gantonwas chosen as the venue. Ben Hogan, captaining his American team for the second time, lifted the Ryder Cup for the winning side after a hard-fought 7-5 victory. Consistently ranked as one of the Top 100 golf courses in the World, Ganton has since played host to the top male and female amateurs on either side of the Atlantic in the Curtis Cup (2000) and Walker Cup (2003). Nick Edmund and George Oldham’s book Following the Fairways describes the course thus: “Ganton enjoys a beautiful peaceful setting nestling on the edge of the Vale of Pickering and the Yorkshire Moors… There are few inland courses with such cavernous bunkers – 111 in all! In addition to the many bunkers and the great spread of gorse, there are numerous fir trees and pines which can come into play following a wayward shot”.

In 1953, the Ryder Cup moved south to another top golfing destination, the West course atWentworth, where Henry Cotton’s home side lost out narrowly to the Americans by a margin of 6½-5½ points. The ‘Burmah Road’ course, set out by Harry Colt in 1923, is a long, tough track and it lies within an enormous property that’s sufficient in acreage to accommodate another two 18-hole courses. As Nick Edmund states in his book Classic Courses of Great Britain and Ireland, “Wentworth is both classy and classic. You realise as much the instant you turn off the A30 and enter the opulent estate. Wentworth’s origins were not exactly humble. At one time Wentworth House was owned by the Duke of Wellington’s sister and it was later acquired by a Spanish count. In 1920 the 1,750-acre site was purchased by a property developer with… the very American dream of creating a golf and country club complex”.

The next port of call for the Ryder Cup matches in the UK was at Lindrick in 1957, where the Great Britain team captured the trophy for the first time in 24 years, beating its American rivals by a score of 7½-4½ points. Mike Berners Price, in his book The Centurions of Golf, makes reference to the man responsible for bringing the competition to Yorkshire: “Sir Stuart Goodwin, a Sheffield industrialist, reached agreement with the PGA that he would sponsor the event at Lindrick. Goodwin was a member of the club but not on the Committee. The decision caused surprise away from Lindrick as the Club had no previous experience of hosting major events and the course was thought to be rather short for top competitions… The Club did not gain any immediate financial benefit from the Ryder Cup, but it was appreciative of Sir Stuart’s initiative and he became Club President in 1958.” Little did anybody imagine at the time that it would take another 28 years before a European team would win the event again.

Moving into the 1960s, the Ryder Cup matches appeared to take semi-permanent residence in the north west of England as first Royal Lytham & St Annes (in 1961) then Royal Birkdale(in 1965 and 1969) were chosen as the home venues for the competition. The first two of this trio of matches resulted in emphatic victories for the USA (14½-9½ and 19½-12½) but the third series of games ended in a 16-16 draw, with Jack Nicklaus forever remembered for his sporting concession of Tony Jacklin’s tricky two-foot putt at the last hole of the final singles tie, resulting in a drawn match overall.

Lytham and Birkdale have played host to all the most prestigious international tournaments down the years, including Walker Cup, Curtis Cup and the Open, and that impressive track record certainly speaks for itself. Donald Steel, in his book Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, is unstinting in his praise for both courses, describing the golfing test at the former as: “Lytham relies on a variety of hazards to weave its torment. There are bunkers galore, grassy hollows and dells to tease and divert shots… and several elevated greens to pose questions of judgement”. He then summarises the challenge at the latter in these terms: “Birkdale’s fairways are flat but they form valleys between mighty dunes, providing a sturdy frame to a landscape embellished by a profusion of tenacious buckthorn and willow scrub.”

In 1973, players from the Republic of Ireland became eligible to join the British Team and the matches moved north of the border for the first time, to the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield, which Malcolm Campbell, in The Scottish Golf Book, believes is “the fairest examination of golf among all of Britain’s great and historic championship courses… an honest but hugely demanding test where the dangers are in open view for all to see. Good shots are usually handsomely rewarded, while the penalties for imperfection can be severe indeed.” The course may well have offered a just, equitable and upright challenge for all the competing golfers during that particular Ryder Cup but its fairness certainly didn’t prevent the USA from lifting the trophy for the eighth time in succession, with a winning margin of 19-13 points.

After another trouncing on home territory at Lytham & St Annes in 1977, when captain Brian Hugget’s Great Britain & Ireland team (as it was now named) was defeated by a score of 12½-7½ points, the next opportunity to gain revenge within the shores of the UK – this time as Team Europe – took place at Walton Heath Golf Club in 1981, when a composite course consisting of fifteen holes from the Old course and three holes from the New course (the 12th, 13th and 18th) were used for the 24th edition of Ryder Cup matches. As mentioned by Phil Pilley in his Walton Heath centenary book entitled Heather and Heaven, none of the European team had won a Major going into the match (though Langer, Faldo and Lyle would later) whilst the USA team had claimed an astonishing 36 Major titles between them. Despite leading by a point after the first day’s play, the European team crumbled on day two, losing seven of the eight matches played, and it eventually capitulated to the Americans by a score of 18½ to 9½ points.

Two years later, the European team came within a point of victory at the PGA National Golf Club in Florida but captain Tony Jacklin would have to wait a further couple of years before finally wresting the trophy from the grasp of his transatlantic golfing foes at the Belfry’s Brabazon course. It’s no over assertion to state that the 1985 Ryder Cup would change the complexion of the event for ever, as the record books show that Europe have since won nine, drawn one and lost only four of the 14 biennial competitions that have been played on either side of the Atlantic since then. At long last, the sporting public now witness a head-to-head golfing event that’s no longer a stroll for one of the sides.

A mere whippersnapper in comparison to the nine older, more established UK courses that preceded it onto the Ryder Cup rota, the modern Belfry complex was nevertheless able to deliver the commercial returns to the PGA European Tour that the other more established courses could never come close to matching. The Brabazon was retained as the venue for the following two series of home matches in 1989 (which was drawn 14-14) and 1993, when captain Tom Watson led his USA team to a narrow 15-13 victory.

The PGA European Tour’s move away from the Belfry to even more lucrative golfing destinations began in earnest in 1997, when Valderramain Spain became the first 18-hole layout in continental Europe to host the Ryder Cup. Acquired by Bolivian industrialist Jaime Ortiz-Patiño in 1984, the course had developed over the following decade into one of the finest in the world. As Geoffrey Giles writes in his book 101 Golf Courses, “Keen to host high-quality tournament golf, Ortiz-Patiño called back the designer of the course – the prolific architect Robert Trent Jones – to make alterations. Most significant of these changes was to reverse the two nines so the hardest run of holes would become the finishing stretch.” The revamped layout certainly threw up many exciting matches in the course of the three-day event, culminating in a repeat of the result from two years earlier at Oak Hill Country Club, when a Seve Ballesteros-inspired European team edged out its opponents in a thrilling match with a score of 14½ to 13½ points.

The Brabazon course’s final hurrah came in 2002 (delayed by a year due to the terrorist attacks of 9/11), when it held its fourth series of Ryder Cup matches in seventeen years – a feat that’s very unlikely to ever be repeated in today’s highly profit-orientated golfing environment – with Sam Torrance captaining the European side to a 15½-12½ victory.

And so to the Palmer course at the K Clubin 2006 where another self-made millionaire, Michael Smurfit, effectively bought the rights to host the Ryder Cup in Ireland. Richard Phinney and Scott Whitley, in their book Links of Heaven, had this to say about Arnie’s layout: “The course used for the Ryder Cup was cleverly rerouted, with the seventh and eighth holes, perhaps the best two on the course, becoming the sixteenth and seventeenth. This created some do-or-die excitement as the greatest players in the world flirted with the water.” And with Darren Clarke losing his wife to cancer earlier that year, it was rather an emotion-filled European team, led by captain Ian Woosnam, which eventually smashed the American team into submission, winning by the enormous margin of 18½ to 9½ points.

Continuing the theme of high profile wealthy individuals with an unbridled passion for golf, Sir Terry Matthews was next up, delivering the Ryder Cup to Wales for the 2010 edition of the competition and he oversaw the construction of the Twenty Ten course at his Celtic Manor Resortspecifically for that event. Geoffrey Giles, author of 101 Golf Courses acknowledges the effort needed to bring the tournament to Newport: “Matthews was ambitious for his resort. He wanted to attract the biggest stars in the game to play there and he set out to bring the Ryder Cup to Wales for the first time. His problem was that none of his existing courses could accommodate such a tournament... drastic measures were needed and Matthews was not afraid to take bold decisions.” Abandoning the old Wentwood Hills layout, he retained nine of its upland holes and added a new nine routed through the Usk Valley to form the Twenty Ten course. Another tight match ensued, which ended in favour of the European team with an extremely tight score of 14½ to 13½ points.

Finally, in 2014, we arrive at the point where the PGA Centenary course at Gleneaglesbecomes the 14th course to join the European Ryder Cup roster and only the second course in Scotland to host the event after Muirfield in 1973. Originally designed by Jack Nicklaus, the layout was extensively overhauled in the winter of 2011, specifically to knock the course into shape for the 40th edition of Ryder Cup matches, some three years down the line. All the greens had a SubAir system installed and all the bunkers were refurbished, with a number of fairway traps removed completely. Significantly, the prosaic approach to the home green was totally remodelled, resulting in a five-metre lowering of the fairway. After all that effort and expense, the course fully deserves whatever plaudits might come its way when the action starts at the end of September. I wonder what drama might unfold in that brand new sporting arena at the 18th hole?

Jim McCann

Follow our Ryder Cup trail by browsing any Ryder Cup course page on the Top 100 website and then click on the blue hyperlinks within the Ryder Cup information box to navigate to the next Ryder Cup venue. You may find a few surprising courses. Start at Worcester Country Club and finish at Gleneagles... it will be an interesting journey.

We don't know anybody who has played every Ryder Cup course on both sides of the Atlantic, so if you've played the full set, please get in touch, we'd love to hear your story.


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