The Phantom Ryder Cup

“If it doesn’t open, it’s not your door.”

By Lee Pace

With the Ryder Cup on tap for later this month, it’s fun and perhaps a bit revealing to hearken back to Pinehurst’s two Ryder Cups — the one in 1951 that did happen, as everyone knows, and the one in 2004 that did not happen that hardly anyone knows about.

Of the former, you’ve probably read that Pinehurst No. 2 was the venue for the biennial match pitting top pro golfers from the United States against the best from Great Britain and Ireland (that team expanding to include all of Europe in 1979). As competitions go, it was rather a snore. The Americans had Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret. The GBI team featured a nice phonetic lilt with Arthur Lees and Dai Rees but not much more. The Yanks won in a landslide, 9 1/2 to 2 1/2.

So casual was the atmosphere at the time for the early November event that on Saturday’s day off (the format called for matches on Friday and Sunday) Snead drove to Florence, South Carolina, for an exhibition. Other golfers went to Chapel Hill for the UNC vs. Tennessee football game. And Pinehurst owner Richard Tufts was struck by how many members and guests were playing golf on courses 1, 3 and 4 while the Sunday singles matches were underway.

“America has become the senior partner, and Great Britain the junior partner,” the English golf writer Henry Longhurst opined. “This is it in the military, the economic and the golfing spheres of influence.”

Fast-forward nearly half a century to the late ’90s.

Pinehurst Resort & Country Club by then had been under the stewardship of Robert Dedman Sr. and ClubCorp for nearly 15 years, and Dedman and chief lieutenants Pat Corso (president and CEO) and Don Padgett Sr. (director of golf) had ushered the club and its renowned No. 2 course back into the front ranks of the national golf hierarchy. The last decade of the 20th century had seen the club host two successful PGA Tour Championships, one U.S. Senior Open and the 1999 U.S. Open, won in pulsating fashion by Payne Stewart on the last stroke of the championship. The golf course was outstanding (one-under-par won the title), and the village, Moore County and the state of North Carolina heaped the proceedings with oodles of sponsorship cash, manpower and energy.

“Perfect,” said Stewart, who lost his life four months later in a plane crash. “A perfect way to win. I think everyone in the field will attest to how great No. 2 is, what a special place this is. To win here means a lot to me.”

Corso and Padgett had no idea in the run-up to the event that the ’99 U.S. Open would turn out so well, but they knew that one successful Open might mean another championship 10 to 12 years down the road. Throughout the ’90s, they were casting about for other significant opportunities to keep the Pinehurst and No. 2 names in the nation’s ongoing golf conversation.

“We thought to stay in the public eye and keep moving the business forward, we needed to have events every two or three years,” says Corso, who ran the resort from 1987-2004. “Padge and I never, ever believed we could wait 10 years for another Open.”

Padgett’s roots and allegiances were with the PGA of America, which owns and runs the Ryder Cup. He was a longtime club pro in Indiana and had risen through the service ranks of the PGA, becoming a national officer in the early ’70s and president in 1977-78. Padgett was among the tight circle of PGA officials that, with the vocal support of Jack Nicklaus, correctly saw the Ryder Cup had become lopsided and made the decision after the 1977 matches to expand the Great Britain/Ireland team’s boundaries, giving it access to European stars-in-the-making like Seve Ballesteros of Spain and Bernhard Langer of Germany.

Those were the credentials that Padgett brought when he became director of golf at Pinehurst at the age of 62 in 1987 and was charged by Dedman and Corso with giving the resort the guidance, ideas and connections it needed to further the Pinehurst cause in top golf circles. Pinehurst forged new relationships with the USGA for its 1989 Women’s Amateur Championship and with the PGA Tour with the 1991-92 Tour Championships. And it was Padgett’s initiative that brought the PGA Club Professional Championship to Pinehurst in 1988 and again for a two-year run at the new No. 8 course in 1997-98.

“We were kind of on a dual path,” remembers Corso, today the executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress. “At that time, we hadn’t actually conducted an Open yet. There was one relationship with the USGA and another with the PGA. We had no idea which way it was going to go.”

Part of the master plan for the 1997-98 Club Pro commitment was to show the nation’s club professionals and instructors that Pinehurst could be an ideal venue for another Ryder Cup — even a half  century after the 1951 matches. Corso invited N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt to a dinner the week of the 1998 Club Pro where Jim Awtrey, the CEO of the PGA of America, would be attending.

“The governor dropped everything and came at the last minute,” Corso remembers. “He sat on one side of Jim Awtrey and I sat on the other. The governor was great. He was very passionate in telling Awtrey that this state wanted the Ryder Cup and asked what he could do to help.”

By 1998, Pinehurst had shown that the state’s corporate community would support a major golf championship. With leadership from its Governor’s Council — a blue-ribbon group of key business executives from across the state — Pinehurst had sold a record number of corporate sponsorships well in advance of the ’99 U.S. Open. The club had rebuilt the greens on No. 2 in 1996 with the top-echelon bent grass and a modern drainage system to ensure the greens would remain firm any time of the year.

It was all enough to convince the board of the PGA in the summer of 1998 that No. 2 would indeed be a terrific Ryder Cup venue for 2003, and Padgett got the good news from Will Mann, at the time the PGA’s president, who was backed by Vice President Jack Connelly, Secretary M.G. Orender and honorary President Ken Lindsay.

“It was all set and agreed upon,” says Don Padgett II, speaking for his father, who died in 2003. “The PGA board said, ‘We want to come to Pinehurst.’ Dad told everyone (at the ClubCorp corporate office) in Dallas it was a done deal.”

Unfortunately for Pinehurst, Awtrey had other ideas. Unbeknown to the board, he negotiated deals with Oakland Hills C.C. in suburban Detroit, Michigan, and Valhalla G.C. in Louisville, Kentucky, for future Ryder Cup and PGA Championship dates — Oakland Hills getting the 2003 Ryder Cup and 2008 PGA and Valhalla the 2007 Ryder Cup. (The Ryder Cup was subsequently set on an even-year schedule following the matches’ postponement in 2001 because of 9/11.) Awtrey informed the board at a meeting in Chicago and left Mann, at the time the owner of a golf course in Graham, N.C., with the uncomfortable task of backtracking with Padgett.

“Financially, the package was so strong that it was the right thing for the association,” Padgett II says of the deal with Oakland Hills and Valhalla. “But none of the officers knew anything about it. The staff had not given them a heads-up; they went into that meeting blind.

“In Dad’s career, it was probably the most heartbreaking thing for him. He’d worked successfully with the Tour and with the USGA. And then the organization he’d given his professional life to was the one that let him down. Not too many things bothered him like that.”

“Padge had such a great love for the PGA and affinity for the club pros,” Corso adds. “To have that happen really, really sucked the air out of his sails for a while.”

But not for long. Later that fall, Padgett Sr. was ruminating on the falling dominoes and found a bright spot.

“Some people say Pinehurst lost out,” Padgett Sr. said. “I’m not so sure but that the PGA lost out.

“I’d say this gives Pinehurst the opportunity to continue aligning itself with the USGA and its championships. Maybe the Open comes back to Pinehurst sooner than it would have. Maybe Pinehurst gets a U.S. Amateur. Maybe the Walker Cup. I personally believe Pinehurst would be a terrific place to hold the Walker Cup.”

Indeed, the die was cast. Within eight months of the Payne Stewart Open, the USGA announced it was returning in 2005. Now over two decades, Pinehurst has hosted a slew of USGA events — the 1999, 2005 and 2014 Opens; the 2008 U.S. Amateur with another to return in 2019; the 2014 Women’s Open; and the 2017 Men’s Amateur Four-Ball. The Open returns in 2024.

And the third weekend in September 2004 was just another fall golf holiday at Pinehurst as the pros fought it out hundreds of miles away outside Detroit. The European team handily dispatched an American squad remembered for the ham-handed leadership of captain Hal Sutton and a dysfunctional pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

No one knew it at the time back in 1998, but it would all work out fine for everyone involved. Well, except Sutton. Maybe he wished that Ryder Cup had been in Pinehurst, the town of his 1980 U.S. Amateur win at the Country Club of North Carolina. PS

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has written about Pinehurst for three decades and authored four books about the resort, most recently The Golden Age of Pinehurst in 2014.

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