40 Years Ago Team USA Ran Away with 1971 Ryder Cup
Going into the 1971 Ryder Cup Team USA was favored again, but health and rivalry issues were swirling around leading up to the tournament. Many feared the availability of Lee Trevino after his recent appendectomy and buzz was still circulating over the last Ryder Cup and the (un)sportsmanship. Two years earlier produced the famous Nicklaus “concession” of Jacklin’s putt to tie the 1969 Ryder Cup. Prior to the “concession,” tensions seemed to grow during the competition. Players were accused of standing too close while a competitor putted. Supposedly, GB’s captain told his squad to not look for an opponent’s ball if it was in the rough. In 1969, the gentleman’s game was anything but gentle. Team USA had won 15 of the first 18 Ryder Cups and were not planning to let up. But it didn’t start on the right foot for the team.
Team USA participant Miller Barber might have been cursed before the first tee shot ever hit the ground. “The clothes we wore were made for us,” Barber said during an interview last year. “Mine came and they didn’t fit. I played in my regular pants-I didn’t match the team.” Barber added that he got a case of the slices during the competition, which led to his underwhelming performance, but he credited fellow teammate Gardner Dickinson with helping him improve. “Gardner worked with me on the driving range. I will always be grateful to Gardner.”
The battle happened on a suburban course in St. Louis named Old Warson Country Club . Team USA featured some quality veterans, including Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino (who won two majors earlier that year) and Billy Casper. Dave Stockton was one of Team USA’s rookies, while the Team GB rookie list included Peter Oosterhuis. Great Britain’s squad featured veteran and two-time major winner Tony Jacklin.
On September 16-the first day (Thursday), the GB team took a commanding 3-1 lead after the morning foursomes, during which Brian Huggett and Jacklin beat Stockton and Nicklaus 3 & 2. Team USA closed the margin during the afternoon foursomes to 4 1/2 to 3 1/2 and the famous and reliable duo of Palmer and Dickinson again added a point, in fact they collected two points on the first day.
Looking back on 1971′s Ryder Cup, Friday was the difference maker. In reality, Team GB suffered one of their worst one-day defeats in the Cup’s history. It started out with a shutout out in the morning.
Team USA player Mason Rudolph in an interview conducted before his passing earlier this year, reflected on his partner Trevino in the morning matches. “Lee drove the ball in the rough,” Rudolph said. “I pulled a four wood out to come down on it and get it out. Lee told me to open the face of a five iron and it will go 200 yards. I did it and it worked. It told me how much Lee knew and how much of golf wasn’t in any book.”
Team USA captured a total of 6 1/2 points out of a possible 8 points during the second day. What started the day as a one-point deficit ended as a four-point advantage. USA’s Captain Jay Hebert even pulled out a little magic in the afternoon four-ball matches when he partnered Nicklaus with Palmer, who won.
Rudolph described Hebert as a, “good leader” and that Hebert got the team together before the tournament to discuss pairings. Rudolph went on to say that Hebert “was a serious guy who saw some action in World War II.” In fact, Hebert earned a Purple Heart for an injury he suffered to his leg during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Going into the final day (Saturday), Team USA held a commanding 10-6 advantage and probably knew they just needed to play .500 to win the Cup outright. In the morning singles matches, 1961 U.S. Open winner Gene Littler was upset by Oosterhuis, however Team USA strengthened its lead by one after capturing 4 1/2 points to Team GB’s 3 1/2. While Trevino’s injury did not come into play, it was Casper’s broken toe during the competition that affected Team USA. Casper broke his toe while trying to reach his hotel bathroom in the dark and did not play on Saturday.
Trevino started the afternoon singles for Team USA against Huggett and re-enforced the tone of that year’s Ryder Cup with a convincing 7 & 6 triumph. Team USA’s J.C. Snead (a rookie) upset Jacklin in the second match on the last hole, which sealed Team USA’s victory. The teams split the potential eight points in the afternoon singles competition evenly with four points apiece. On a very different note, the second to last singles match of that year’s Ryder cup was won by Oosterhuis, this time he beat Palmer. Saturday’s performance led to Oosterhuis’ reputation as a top singles match player in Ryder Cups. During a future Ryder Cup he would go on to defeat Johnny Miller as well.
And yes, this Ryder Cup had a tense moment. On the morning of the second day’s four-ball matches, Palmer was involved in what was a minor controversy. Team GB’s Bernard Gallacher’s caddie asked Palmer what club he used on the 17th hole. Immediately, Palmer, who was playing again with Dickinson, consulted with a referee. The hole was given to Team USA, because Team GB had broken the rule of illegal requests for advice. Palmer and Dickinson won the match 5 & 4.
Even with a bit of controversy, Rudolph admitted that the crowds in St. Louis were big. ”St. Louis didn’t have a (PGA) tournament,” Rudolph said. “They liked to have (Ryder Cup’s) where the tour didn’t play. The crowds were well-behaved and very courteous.”
When all was said and done the USA had defeated the last Team GB-only squad 18 1/2 to 13 1/2. That marked the seventh consecutive undefeated Ryder Cup by Team USA, thus becoming a building block in what was to eventually be a Team USA vs. Team Europe competition. (Two years later the USA faced the Ireland/Great Britain Team and eight years later the first-ever Team Europe faced off against the Red, White and Blue. While Team GB had included players from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the past, 1973 was the first year they were open to including them in the name.)