Still, it was civilized. You had gentlemen golfers like Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin. Their deciding singles match in 1969 was a prime example of the beautiful symbiosis of competition and sportsmanship.
In 1969, the U.S. squad came to Royal Birkdale in Southport, England, having won 14 of the previous 18 Ryder Cup matches. But Jacklin did something few expected; he fought Nicklaus to a standoff. Furthermore, Jacklin might have won that match, and, with it, return the Ryder Cup to the U.K. But Nicklaus holed a nailbiting 5-foot par putt on the final hole to ensure at least a tie with Jacklin and no worse than a 16-16 draw that, by Ryder Cup rules, would keep the cup in U.S. hands.
Jacklin was no slouch. The most accomplished English golfer of his generation, he had won the British Open earlier in 1969 and would win the U.S. Open in 1970, the only European to do so from 1926 until Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell won this year at Pebble Beach. Still, Jacklin faced a 2-foot par putt of his own at 18. Had he missed, Nicklaus would have won the singles match and given the U.S. a 16-1/2 to 15-1/2 victory over the U.K.
Nicklaus, who by that time had already won seven major championships and would go on to win 11 more, didn't need to watch Jacklin sweat over a 24-inch putt with the outright Ryder Cup title hanging in the balance. He conceded the putt to England's favored son, on British soil, and the two men walked off the 18th green at Birkdale, foes but more importantly friends.
Jacklin played on six straight Ryder Cup teams (1967, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977), and that draw in 1969 was the closest he would come to winning as a player, although he eventually succeeded as Ryder Cup captain after the format was expanded in 1979 to include European players on the U.K. side. In 1985, captain Jacklin's Team Europe won at The Belfry in Warwickshire, England, the first time in 28 years the U.S. had lost. Proving it was no fluke, the Euros repeated as champions in 1987 at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, the first time the Americans had ever lost the Ryder Cup on U.S. soil.
The Ryder Cup has been competitive ever since, thanks in large part to the expansion of the U.K. to include the rest of Europe. Spaniards such as Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal were among the first to both benefit from the rules change and also boost their side's talent pool.
However, the increased competition has also come at a cost. The sportsmanship has been replaced at times by gamesmanship, and without pointing fingers, players from both sides have occasionally been at fault. The fans have gotten into it as well, with nationalistic fervor in golf seeming at times to rival the hooliganism of World Cup soccer fans.
Nothing prepared me, though, for the events of the past couple months involving the most recent former captains of the European and U.S. squads, Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger.
Both are exceedingly proud men who were warriors during their playing days. Faldo, an Englishman who at 20 was a Ryder Cup teammate of Jacklin's in 1977, won the Masters and British Open three times each. Azinger, a native of Massachusetts who now makes his home in Florida, captured the 1993 PGA. Their paths crossed memorably in 1987 at the British Open, held at Muirfield in Scotland. In brutal weather that took down one contender after another, Faldo incredibly posted 18 consecutive pars on the final day to win by one shot over Azinger, who bogeyed the final two holes.
It was the first of Faldo's six major titles. He was No. 1 in the world for almost two years, while Azinger would have to wait another six years for his first major victory. It surely must have killed Zinger, and the fact that the two men for quite a while shared a booth on CBS golf telecasts is testament to their ability to put aside any past bitterness.
But if Faldo and Azinger can get along (though something tells me they're not exactly BFFs), it doesn't seem as if their successors as Ryder Cup captains are feeling much love these days. Corey Pavin, the 1995 U.S. Open champ and a three-time Ryder Cup competitor (1991, 1993, 1995), was named in December 2008 to succeed Azinger as U.S. captain.
Zinger lobbied publicly to retain the job, although repeat captaincy is more the exception these days than the rule. It seems that he didn't take it too well, though, and he's been equally vocal in his criticism of Pavin, who hasn't yet made his four captain's picks for the 12-man U.S. squad that will compete in the Ryder Cup on Oct. 1-3 at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales.
And what was Pavin's crime? He hasn't consulted with Azinger about strategy for the Ryder Cup.
Faldo is similarly miffed at Colin Montgomerie, the great Scot who as an eight-time Ryder Cup player never lost in singles play. Montgomerie, named in January 2009 to captain Team Europe, has also not consulted with the previous captain, although in his case there is probably some bad blood. In 2008, Faldo passed over Monty for his two captain's picks, naming instead Paul Casey and Ian Poulter.
Faldo and Azinger need to get over themselves. These are a couple of 50-year-olds who are acting like petulant children. Yes, it would have been nice if Pavin and Montgomerie had reached out for advice, but it's not mandated. They get to line up their teams, just as Faldo and Azinger before them were entrusted with that duty.
Let's hope better behavior prevails once the Ryder Cup starts in October.