Late this month, the 43rd Ryder Cup will be played on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, one of the four golf courses at The American Club outside Kohler, Wisconsin. First contested in June 1927, the Ryder Cup is a biennial event between teams of professional golfers from Europe and the United States. Over the years, it has become one of the most important and popular competitions in the game. The patriotic fervor it sparks among players and spectators alike has a lot to do with that. So does the format, which is match play and has golfers facing off against each other — as individuals or in teams of two — as opposed to simply battling the field, which is the norm in the stroke play tournaments they enter on the PGA and European PGA Tours. There is more fist pumping from players in a Ryder Cup when a putt drops. And more cheering from the gallery. The overall atmosphere is boisterous, and the competitors and those in the crowd feed off one another through the three-day affair.
The matches were born from a pair of informal team competitions arranged between American and British golfers before they played in the Open Championship, first in 1922 at the Gleneagles resort in the Scottish Highlands and then four years later at Wentworth Club outside London. An English businessman and golf enthusiast who had pioneered the concept of selling packets of garden seeds by mail was particularly enthralled by the idea. His name was Samuel Ryder, and in addition to becoming one of the sponsors of the matches, he donated the gold trophy that went to the winner when the Ryder Cup was officially staged for the first time.
There was talk initially about playing the event on an annual basis, rotating between sites in the U.S. and Great Britain. But the costs and logistics of such an arrangement did not make sense, so it was decided to play the matches every other year.
The United States dominated through the mid-1970s, when the opposition consisted of golfers from Great Britain and Ireland. But in 1977, organizers expanded that squad to include Europeans such as Seve Ballesteros (Spain) and Bernhard Langer (Germany). That leveled the playing field, with the Europeans holding an 11-8 edge since then, with one tie.
This year, the organizers could not have selected a better venue than the Straits Course. Designed by Pete Dye, it runs along 2 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, with a number of greens seemingly hanging on cliffs that rise above the water. The track favors those who can handle wind and play the sort of ground game that works best on traditional Old World courses. Golfers also need to have a sand game to succeed there, as Dye scattered some 900 bunkers throughout the property. Holes run in and around dunes and along swaths of knee-high fescue, making it is easy for golfers to forget they are in Wisconsin, and not Ireland or Scotland. The course also boasts one of the finest collections of par-3s in the game. And the 18th hole, with a massive green set in an amphitheater-like hollow by the stone clubhouse, is capable of providing plenty of drama for matches that come down to the bitter end.