The Ryder Cup comes home

Jill Menghetti takes a look at the magnificent golf resort of Gleneagles and the story behind the tournament.

SCOTLAND’S fabulous year of sport moves on from staging the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow to hosting the Ryder Cup, one of the most celebrated sporting events in the world, in the spectacular setting of Gleneagles.

From September 23 to 28 the spotlight will be on the PGA Centenary Course at the glamorous Perthshire hotel as defending champions Europe go head to head with the United States in the greatest tournament of foursomes and singles match play golf. Yet no prize money is on offer to the 24 world-class professionals who will have vied for the honour of a place on their team. It’s all about the glory.

Incredibly, since the country is the home of golf, it will be only the second time that Scotland has hosted this biennial event – not since 1973 when Great Britain & Ireland were beaten at Muirfield by an American team that included Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. The first 22 events after the tournament was established in 1927 were dominated by the States but since European players entered the fray in 1979 Europe currently has the edge.

Now the battle lines are being drawn again as the Americans will seek revenge following 2012’s dramatic match at Medinah Country Club in the USA where on the final day Europe overturned a four-point deficit to win by 14½ to 13½ points.

Gleneagles is where it all started, in 1921 on its King’s Course, with an unofficial match between British and American professionals (won by the home team). Known as where the Lowlands meet the Highlands and just one hour’s drive from Edinburgh and Glasgow, the lush rolling Perthshire countryside is perfect for golf. The game has been played there since the 15th century, with even King James IV learning to play.

The luxurious Gleneagles Hotel was established in 1924 and soon became known as the Riviera of the Highlands with its spectacular scenery and opportunities for outdoor leisure pursuits. The resort is also home to Scotland’s PGA National Academy for Golf.

This year Europe will be captained for the first time by an Irishman, Paul McGinley. He was on the winning side in all three Ryder Cups he has played in and was vice-captain for the past two tournaments. McGinley famously holed a 10 foot putt on the 18th green at The Belfry to win the trophy for Europe in 2002. He is passionate about the event, its camaraderie and the crowd atmosphere that inspires great play: “I’d like to make that first tee as noisy as possible!”

McGinley is thrilled to be captaining the team for the showdown in Scotland and is full of praise for Gleneagles. He says: “It’s a big deal to be Ryder Cup captain no matter where, but particularly in Scotland. It doesn’t get much better than that.

“The hotel is amazing – I’ve been involved in a lot of Ryder Cups and there’s no setting like this one. It’s really special. The PGA Centenary course is designed by Jack Nicklaus and there are great spectator areas. It’s going to be very exciting.”

His job includes selecting three players to join the nine who will automatically land a coveted berth on the European team. The qualifying period ends with the Italian Open on August 31 and everyone wants to earn a place on merit. Already assured of a spot is Open champion Rory McIlroy who is way ahead in the European points list.

The USA will be captained by the experienced and much respected Tom Watson, at 65 the oldest Ryder Cup captain and as passionate about the competition and Scotland as McGinley. Having won four of his five Open titles in Scotland, Watson came within a whisker of making it six when he was 59 at Turnberry in 2009. Now he has the quandary of whether to pick Tiger Woods for his team, a controversial decision either way. The 38-year-old superstar finished 69th in this year’s Open and is far adrift in the USA standings following injury.

While the 1921 Gleneagles match was a landmark, it was the vision of golfing fan Samuel Ryder that established the event. This remarkable man from modest beginnings was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, model employer, mayor of St Albans – and, like many businessmen, a keen golfer. The successful “Penny Packet” seed merchant had started playing for the good of his health – at the age of 49 – and became hooked (just two years after taking up the game he was captain of Verulam Golf Club).

Ryder was so fired up by the concept of Great Britain and US professionals playing each other that – no doubt with an astute eye to the publicity, too – he commissioned what was to become one of the most enduring sporting legacies in the world. Costing £250 (in today’s money £13,300), the famous gold chalice features the small figure of golfing great Abe Mitchell, who was Ryder’s personal coach and part of the successful British team in 1926 at Wentworth in another unofficial match. The following year the official Ryder Cup tournament was launched at Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts, with the USA taking first possession of the trophy.

Samuel Ryder was born in Walton-le-Dale just outside Preston in 1858, one of eight children from a humble but hard-working family. His mother was a dressmaker and his father developed a successful market gardening business which Samuel later joined.

The idea of selling garden seeds by post to the general public was a winner. It made Samuel Ryder’s fortune. He relocated in 1895 from Lancashire to St Albans because of the city’s excellent railway connections and steadily built up the business. Ryder & Sons opened in 1911 in what is now the Café Rouge on Holywell Hill.

Ryder was a staunch Methodist and, ever mindful of the poor conditions he had witnessed in his youth, he introduced one of the first sick pay schemes for employees. All the while his business was growing he became involved in charity work and the arts. He was mayor of St Albans in 1905, served on the council for 13 years, was a magistrate and an alderman of the city. He died in 1936 and is buried in St Albans’ Hatfield Road cemetery.

In memory of this inspiring and generous man, Ryder Cup Europe has this year donated £25,000 towards the commissioning of a bronze statue of Samuel Ryder. It will stand in the centre of St Albans and be created by acclaimed Shropshire portrait sculptor Jemma Pearson whose work includes statues of such influential men as Darwin, Elgar and Gladstone.

A fitting tribute indeed.

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