Palmer's Super Seven
"Even though my relationship with the Ryder Cup developed into one that I came to cherish, my earliest experiences of the competition were not of a happy nature."
It was deeply frustrating to me that I won the 1958 Masters, and nine other tournaments prior to that, but that I was denied the opportunity to collect Ryder Cup points for my play. The PGA's rules stipulated that I had not been a member of the tour for long enough to have earned the privilege to play in the Ryder Cup.
“Those points from the Masters undoubtedly would have placed me on the 1959 team that played at Eldorado Country Club in Palm Springs. This injustice stuck in my craw, I must admit. Purely from a point of comparison, if such a restrictive clause existed today, players of such world-class caliber as Tiger Woods and Justin Leonard wouldn't have made the Ryder Cup squad that went to Valderrama in 1997.
“Whatever hard feelings I privately nursed about being ineligible for the Ryder Cup of 1959, they vanished in 1961, the American squad and our wives walked onto the hushed grounds at Royal Lytham and St Annes for the opening ceremonies of the competition. I remember standing with my teammates near the first tee and feeling a lump rise in my throat and tears fill my eyes as the brass band played the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ followed by ‘God Save the Queen.’
“Another powerful memory from that weekend on the Lancashire coast involves Peter Alliss, who I played in the morning singles. Peter was an elegant and accomplished player. As most of the British players did, he shaped his shots for control purposes, from left to right in a controlled fade. I greatly admired the way Peter played the game, with such precision and accuracy, which was almost nothing like my style. It says something about the man’s quiet tenacity that I had to work my tail off simply to halve with him. Cordially shaking hands at the match’s conclusion, I think both of us knew we’d been in a dogfight - and would probably be in a few more before things were over.
“The highlight of my week came when Bill Casper and I teamed up in the foursomes to defeat Dai Rees and Ken Blousfield, 2 and 1. Counting my singles win over Tom Haliburton, a lovely gentleman, I departed Lytham with three and a half points contributed to my team’s winning total of 14.
“For Winnie, the week proved almost as special. Even then, the unique social intimacy of the Ryder Cup - the lively and fancy dinners held on our behalf, the laughs and drinks we shared after the matches through each evening - enabled her to get to know British players and their wives, as well as various members of the British press and various golf officials from their side of the pond. “Ryder Cup participation came to mean an awful lot to me. At East Lake in Atlanta, two years later, I narrowly defeated Dow Finsterwald in a close team vote for captain. I was honored to be chosen to head the American squad. Actually, I became the last playing captain in the matches. This time I lost a close singles match to Alliss, who, for a man whose Rolls Royce bears the license plate ‘3 PUT’ certainly made his share of fine strokes. On the other side of the coin, though, I won four other matches against two defeats and contributed four points to our team’s winning total in a lopsided romp, 23-9. Peter was one of their few bright spots - and don’t believe it when he
says he can’t putt.
“In 1965, returning to Royal Birkdale, old friend, Dave Marr, and I teamed to halve two foursomes matches with Dave Thomas and George Will, followed by a similar split in the four-ball matches against Alliss and Christy O’Connor. I captured both my singles matches, though, and left Birkdale with a 4-2 record.
“We retained the Cup, 19-12. Another rout by the Yanks. A funny thing happened en route to another lopsided American win at Houston’s Champions Golf Club in 1967. Julius Boros and I were getting trounced early in the four-ball matches against Hugh Boyle and George Will when I glanced up and saw Jackie Burke looking on. Jackie was the host professional at Champions and a longtime friend who loved to pull my chain whenever he could. ‘Well, Palmer,’ he drawled slyly as we walked off the green where Julius and I had gone three down. ‘Looks like you two have gotten yourselves into a real mess.’
“I glanced at him as if I had no idea what he was talking about. ‘What do you mean, Jackie?’ He grimaced. ‘I mean, I don’t think even you will be able to get your team out of this one.’ ‘Jackie,’ I replied, ‘I’m sorry you don’t have any faith in us.’
‘Sorry. Not this time,’ he said. ‘Well, if that’s the case,’ I proposed thoughtfully, ‘you wouldn’t care to put a little something on it, would you?’ Now the old rascal smiled. ‘I tell you what. If you somehow get out of this mess and win this match, I’ll make you a clock.’
‘A clock?’ I asked.
‘Not just any clock,’ he added. ‘A beautiful handmade clock.’ So a clock it was. On the very next hole, Julius and I started a charge and went on to secure a come-from-behind one-up victory. That momentum propelled us through the rest of the weekend. I won five matches, gave the Brits a joyride in my airplane that brought the wrath of the FAA down on my head and scored five points, contributing to one of the largest American margins of victory in the history of the Ryder Cup. That handmade clock, incidentally, which has the twelve letters of my name where the numbers usually are, sits on a shelf in my office workshop. That’s a place very special to me - the place I really love to go and work on clubs and be alone with my thoughts. So it’s only fitting the clock is there, reminding me of a wonderful moment in my playing career and how much fun it was to take that clock out of Jackie Burke’s hands.
“On a more serious note, permit me to set the record straight on a matter that has circulated erroneously for years - namely, that Ben Hogan, the American team captain that year, chewed me out at one point for assuming I would be playing every match. While I was hardly a favorite of Mr Hogan, no such heated conversation ever took place. Ben conducted himself with his usual cool dignity and I did my job, and the results of his captaincy and the team play pretty well speak for themselves.
“In 1971, at Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis, Jack Nicklaus and I teamed-up in the first of several Ryder Cup collaborations, defeating Peter Townsend and Harry Bannerman one-up in a closely contested fourball match. Gardiner Dickinson and I proved even more formidable as a team that year, however, winning three of our team matches to give me a record of four wins against one loss and one tie, in another romp by the hosts, 18-13.
Two years later, at Muirfield, Scotland, happened to be the setting of my poorest performance in Ryder Cup competition. Jack and I beat Maurice Bembridge and Eddie Pollard, 6 and 5, in the first foursomes match, but turned right around and dropped the four-ball to Bembridge and Brian Huggett, 3 and 1. For the first time, I failed to win a singles match and my losses outnumbered my wins, 3-2.
On the plus side of the ledger, Winnie was utterly charmed by the chef’s lamb and the cozy elegance and staff of the small hotel where we stayed during the competition. With my Ryder Cup career clearly waning, I pulled just about every string available with the sponsoring PGA of America to arrange for the Cup to come to Laurel Valley in 1975. Perhaps someone high up in the organization thought of it as a suitable reward for my decision a decade before not to bolt from the organization when temptation was so strong. Whatever their reasons, I was very pleased that the Cup was coming to my place in Pennsylvania for what would clearly be my fare-thee-well to Ryder Cup participation.
“I’d hoped to play my way onto the team, but it wasn’t meant to be. Everyone knew that my selection as team captain was a very symbolic and sentimental choice. My record as a player in the event spoke for itself in that regard.
“At that point in time, no American had a better win-loss record in Ryder Cup competition than me, but it was obvious that my better days on tour were behind me - as my mediocre tournament record from that year indicates. I was deeply honored to be selected captain, and what a team I had that year - golf’s equivalent of the Dream Team, and maybe the best Ryder Cup squad ever: Nicklaus; Littler; Trevino; Miller; Weiskopf; Floyd; Casper; Irwin; Geiberger; Dave Hill; J.C. Snead; Lou Graham; Bob Murphy.
“I suppose the outcome was a foregone conclusion. In retrospect, the most interesting drama centred around the efforts of Nicklaus, who had a devil of a time with big Brian Barnes. It’s kind of funny now, but it was no laughing matter then. In their first singles match, Brian shocked everybody - and probably even himself – by upsetting Jack. During the lunch break, everyone was buzzing that I should engineer a rematch with Barnes so Jack could get his revenge. I could see that even Jack was itching for a rematch, so I pulled it off. They met again a little while later on the first tee. ‘Well, Brian,’ Jack said to Barnes. ‘You beat me this morning. You’re not going to beat me again.’ I don’t think anybody there would have disagreed with that assessment. Certainly not a Ladbroke bookie. That season Jack had already won six tournaments, including two majors, was the Tour’s leading money winner, and was en route to PGA Player of the Year honors. He was the game’s presiding master, at the top of his game.
“But Barnes beat him again, 3 and 2. All that proves in my book is what splendid unpredictability match-play golf provided. It’s a reason I wish the PGA Championship would consider returning to its original match-play format.
“I loved the Ryder Cup, because it simply wasn’t about playing for money. It was about playing for something far grander and more personal. I’m proud of what the Ryder Cup did for me - and for what I contributed to my teams in six Ryder Cup competitions as a player. I won 22 matches against eight losses, with two ties and a total of 23 points. That was a record that stood from 1973 until Nick Faldo won two more points at Valderrama Golf Club in Spain in 1997, pushing his career points total to 25. The Ryder Cup record is now his alone and that’s how it should be, for records are not meant to stand forever.