Golftown Journal

Their Cup Runneth Over

But it wasn’t always that way

By Lee Pace

It was 40 years ago when the Ryder Cup pivoted from a sleepy, ceremonial tea party to one of the world’s most anticipated and watched sporting events. On Oct. 16, 1983, Lanny Wadkins nailed a wedge shot to a foot on the final hole at PGA National Golf Club for a birdie and the clinching point for the American team, nipping the Europeans 14 1/2 to 13 1/2.

Jack Nicklaus, the non-playing captain, went down on his knees to kiss Wadkins’ divot. He drank champagne from the Ryder Cup itself during a victory celebration that Wadkins recently said, “To this day, that was probably the best party I’ve ever seen.”

Meanwhile, European captain Tony Jacklin seethed. “We just missed this time,” he said. “But I promise you, when the Americans come to England in two years, it’ll be a different story.”

You think? 

Though it took four years for the effects to truly manifest themselves in the drama at Palm Beach Gardens, the decision in 1979 to expand the Great Britain and Ireland team to include all of continental Europe was the change that created the spectacle of the modern matches. This year, in a Ryder Cup contested in the countryside outside of Rome on a Marco Simone Golf Club course in the shadows of a castle built 1,200 years ago, Jon Rahm of Spain, Viktor Hovland of Norway and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy highlight a European team with an English captain and five co-captains that included a Dane, two Italians, one Spaniard and a Belgian.

Before the GB&I team composition changed, the Americans held an 18-3-1 record in the biennial competition. The tie featured the famous Nicklaus/Jacklin match in 1969 with the U.S. retaining the cup. America’s dominance through those years included a 9 1/2 to 2 1/2 lambasting of the team from Great Britain — as it was called then — at Pinehurst in 1951. Beginning with the matches in ’79 when the U.S. opponent was all of Europe, the record heading into the 2023 matches in Italy was Europe 11 wins, America nine wins, and one tie — a result that allowed Europe to retain the cup in 1989.

Two men with connections to the Sandhills and North Carolina were on the front lines in the 1970s when the PGA of America and the British PGA made the decision that changed golf history.

Henry Poe, a native of Durham and a Duke University graduate, was president of the PGA of America in 1975-76.

Don Padgett Sr. was a longtime club professional in Indiana and the PGA vice president and then president during that era. Padgett would later serve as Pinehurst’s director of golf from 1987-2002 and was instrumental in Pinehurst’s quest to land major championship golf that today includes U.S. Open number four coming next June and four more on the calendar through 2047. 

“To show you just how far off the radar screen the Ryder Cup was at that time, the 1975 competition almost didn’t get on television,” Padgett said in 2002. “George Love, the kingpin at Laurel Valley and the local chairman of the event, had to guarantee the commercial time to get ABC to agree to show the competition. Can you imagine that today? It’s gone from the club having to beg for TV coverage to today where NBC pays millions of dollars to televise the Ryder Cup.”

The 1975 rosters underlined the competitive imbalance in the two squads. The Americans had nine players who would win Grand Slam events — Billy Casper, Ray Floyd, Lou Graham, Hale Irwin, Gene Littler, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf and Nicklaus. By contrast, the GB&I team had only British Open champion Jacklin among major-championship winners on its roster. The score that year? The U.S. won, 21-11.

The 1977 Ryder Cup Matches were held at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in England. Poe, the pro at Redding Country Club in Pennsylvania, was chairman of the matches, and Padgett was president of the PGA. They were riding around the course in a golf cart, and Poe said, “Don, I’m really getting concerned about the Ryder Cup. Several of our players have said they don’t care if they ever play again. There’s just no competition.”

It was clear that some change was going to have to be made to strengthen the GB&I team in order to keep the players’ interest. Nicklaus said in a letter to Lord Derby, captain of the British PGA, that the Ryder Cup had become a social affair for the Americans — and little else.

“It is vital to widen the selection procedures if the Ryder Cup is to continue to enjoy its past prestige,” Nicklaus told Lord Derby, who was also president of Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club.

Poe suggested that afternoon that he and Padgett try to get Lord Derby to sit down and discuss the issue. It was incumbent on the British to expand the boundaries of the GB&I team. They had breakfast with him the next morning, and Lord Derby seemed receptive to the idea.

“Henry was close friends with Lord Derby,” Padgett remembered. “That relationship helped him get Lord Derby to consider the proposition. By then the British PGA was conducting a true European tour, and we believed the team fielded by the British PGA should reflect that. I think Lord Derby and the GB&I team were tired of losing.”

When the 1979 Ryder Cup came to the Greenbrier in West Virginia, the American opponent was now a true European team, one not limited to the British Isles — and there were a couple of young Spaniards on the squad named Seve Ballesteros and Anthony Garrido.

“Seve was young and good-looking and had a slashing, charging game,” Padgett said. “He was like a young Arnold Palmer. And he had a wonderful short game. You could see things might be different down the road.”

The United States still dominated at the Greenbrier, 17 to 11, and won handily two years later at Walton Heath, 18 1/2 to 9 1/2. But new faces on the European team were spicing things up. Bernhard Langer from Germany and Jose Maria Canizares of Spain joined the squad in 1981. The British PGA now had a much broader pool of talent from which to draw, and the European players brought a more durable quality to their team. They played week-to-week on courses offering more variety and difficult playing conditions than the American tour. Travel was more challenging and amenities less in abundance.

“It all goes back to relationships, which are so important in all of business but particularly in golf, which is a fairly small world,” Padgett said. “Henry’s relationship with Lord Derby got the ball rolling. I’m sure things would have changed eventually had Henry not made that appeal to Lord Derby back in 1977. But I don’t think they would have changed as soon.”

Since then we’ve been treated to the “War by the Shore” at Kiawah in 1991 (Langer still wondering if that damn putt will fall), Justin Leonard’s 45-foot bomb at The Country Club in 1999, Darren Clarke harnessing the grief over his wife’s recent passing to go 3-0-0 at the K Club in Ireland in 2006, Ian Poulter’s birdie binge to fuel the “Miracle at Medinah” in 2012, and the steely Patrick Reed edging Rory McIlroy 1-up at Hazeltine in 2016.

“The European and the American teams are more patriotic now than ever,” Nicklaus says. “I think that’s great. It is the one week where one of the world’s best golfers is not playing just for himself. He’s also playing for 11 others, for his country and for an enormous amount of pride.”  PS

Lee Pace has written about the Pinehurst experience for more than three decades from his home in Chapel Hill. Write him at and follow him @LeePaceTweet.