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Down Memory Lane: Ryder Cup has lost spirit of Golden Bear Jack Nicklaus

By Malcolm Brodie

It is all too easy to brand a bygone era, make it glisten a little more in memory and marinate with nostalgia.

The Ryder Cup, once the virtual property of the United States until the European resurgence of the 1980s, has generated many wonderful occasions, some tragic, some glorious, some funny and, of course, golf of the highest calibre from the legends of the sport.

Who can forget Mark Calcavecchia throwing away a four-hole lead with four to play against Colin Montgomerie and then breaking down in tears at Kiawah Island?

Royal Birkdale, near Southport, was the venue for the 1969 series which provided one of the finest examples of sportsmanship in the history of the game.

The outcome, after days of rain, wind and biting cold, depended on the last match between the young Jack Nicklaus, a pre-eminent performer even then, and 21-year-old British hope Tony Jacklin. Here we had drama at its most enthralling.

On their way down the last fairway Nicklaus asked: “How do you feel Tony?” Jacklin replied: “Bloody awful.”

These were some of the final moments of friendliness in a tournament in which the behaviour of players on each side left much to be desired. Indeed, it reached a point where it became a high octane tinderbox just waiting to be ignited.

For instance, the Great Britain and Ireland captain Eric Brown instructed his players not to search for the opposition ball if it landed in the rough. The American Ken Still, in the first day foursomes, had stood much too close to Maurice Bembridge as he was playing which caused a furore. Worse still Brown and his counterpart Sam Snead had to instruct players to calm down during the fourballs on day two.

As they reached the green Nicklaus sank a four-foot putt. “I was not only putting for myself but for my country,” he remarked. That left Jacklin with a three-footer to force the first ever tie in the Ryder Cup (16-16).

Nicklaus then stunned the crowd when he picked up his opponent’s marker rather than forcing Jacklin to putt out. Quipped Nicklaus: “I don’t think you would have missed that Tony, but I didn’t want to give you the chance.”

While his gesture brought a degree of dignity back to the game, it incurred the wrath of the cantankerous Snead who wore a straw hat and who is reputed to have played a tournament in his bare feet. As a golfer he was supreme, a winner of seven majors — three US Masters, three PGAs and one Open — earning his place among the all-time superstars.

Nicklaus, winner of 18 majors, is a role model for young aspirants. What was the secret of his success? “I never went into a tournament or a round of golf thinking I had to beat a certain player. I had to beat the golf course. If I prepared myself for a major, went in focussed and beat the course the rest would take care of itself.”

The eyes of the world will be on Celtic Manor this week as the US and European teams battle it out for the trophy named after Samuel Ryder, a Lancashire-born entrepreneur and golf fanatic, who became a multi-millionaire selling garden seeds in penny packets. He presented the trophy in 1927 for the first biennial tournament between the US and Great Britain and Ireland (later extended to Europe). He died in a London hospital in 1936.

The tournament, like golf, and indeed all sport, has changed beyond recognition from Ryder’s time. How often do you see a repeat of Jack Nicklaus’s Olympian spirit of 1969?

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