Friday, 19 September 2014

1985 Ryder Cup: Craig Stadler

Eighteen inches. Just eighteen inches. So close, that even asking a former US Masters champion to play the shot seemed questionable, almost a waste of time. You or I might miss the occasional one from this length, but not a professional playing in the Ryder Cup. Surely not. Back went the putter and.....

Hopes had been high for Europe as the 1985 Ryder Cup approached. After their heroic one point loss at the PGA National in 1983, the growing impression was that with home advantage and the momentum building behind Europe's rising stars, 1985 would see the end of 28 years of hurt. Conversely, the 1985 American team did not contain the big names of yesteryear; they still had plenty of major winners in their ranks, but none as intimidating as a Nicklaus, Watson, Palmer or Trevino. The time seemed right for Europe to pounce.

Certainly the press were confident of impending success. The Daily Express' Mark Wilson predicted "On Sunday night I believe we will be hailing 12 great champions - the heroes of Europe's winning Ryder Cup force", with the Daily Mirror's Ron Wills clearly spelling out his feelings on the matter: "If Europe's golfers don't beat the Yanks at The Belfry this weekend, they may never beat them".

Under Tony Jacklin's captaincy for a second time, Seve Ballesteros had been joined in the major winners circle by US Masters winner Bernhard Langer and Open champion Sandy Lyle, two men who would play a part in the individual match that would turn the tide of the 1985 Ryder Cup. A continent expected.

So you can probably understand the general feeling of despondency after the first morning, as the sound of Europe's bubble bursting could be heard throughout the golfing world. The US surged into a 3-1 lead after the foursomes, with only Ballesteros and Manuel Pinero providing any source of encouragement for the hosts. Worryingly for Jacklin and European fans, Lyle and Ken Brown seemed out of form, Nick Faldo asked to stand down until the Sunday due to issues with his remodelled swing, and the skipper was forced to ruthlessly drop the trio after what he later described as "a rude awakening".

Luckily, Jacklin's gamble paid off, as Europe won the four ball session 2½-1½, with wins for Ballesteros and Pinero, and the new partnership of Ian Woosnam and Paul Way. Although the US finished day one with a point lead, Europe had managed to limit the damage of their poor opening session, leaving a relieved Jacklin to admit that he was happy to be back in the contest: "The way we came back in the afternoon in the four balls gives me even greater hope for the all-deciding singles on Sunday. But I want to go into the singles with a lead".

For Lyle though, the fact that he had been dropped from the afternoon action did not sit easily. "Naturally I am sick about being dropped, and that's the captain's prerogative and I've got to accept it," Lyle commented. "Tony Jacklin gave me no explanation. He just said I wasn't playing". Jacklin's decision to omit the Open champion from his line-up was bold and calculated, and one that paid off on the Friday. If Lyle did feel resentment, then he soon had the chance to put the situation straight in the Saturday morning four balls.

Europe's recovery continued into the early stages of Saturday. Sam Torrance and Howard Clark - unlucky to be beaten twice the day before - won their first match, and when Way and Woosnam crushed Hubert Green and Fuzzy Zoeller 4 & 3, the scores were level. The US soon regained the advantage though, as Ballesteros and Pinero could not repeat their Friday performances, losing to Mark O'Meara and Lanny Wadkins, and as the final match on the course drew to a conclusion, what had looked like a promising morning for Europe appeared to be drifting away.

Langer and Lyle found themselves dormie two down against Craig Stadler and Curtis Strange, and with the very birdieable par five 17th hole to come, realistically one of the home pair needed to find an eagle to take the match down the last. Two monster blows from Lyle gave him an outside chance of this, but with a putt of approximately 25 feet, and Stadler close in three, it looked like Europe's chances were slim. But Lyle rattled his putt home to rapturous applause, at least extending the match to the final hole, and potentially planting seeds of doubt into the heads of their opponents.

Despite Lyle's best efforts on the 17th, it still seemed as if honours would be even after the morning session. With Strange out of the hole, Stadler lagged his birdie putt to 18 inches, and his inevitable par meant that either Lyle or Langer had to make their birdie putts to halve the match and bring the overall score to 6-6. Both gave the ball a chance to drop, but neither could find the bottom of the hole. It just remained for Stadler to tap in his tiddler - which would surely have been conceded if it was not for the match - to keep America noses in front and quell the European uprising.

Back went the putter That didn't just happen, did it? Stadler stabbed at the ball, amazingly missing the hole completely from under two feet, as the crowd reacted with a mixture of cheers and gasps at what they had just witnessed. Stadler turned back towards the lake, placing his hand down the back of his shirt, as dazed as everyone else. Jacklin looked on, genuinely stunned at what he had just seen, as Lyle and Langer gingerly approached Stadler to shake hands.

Half a point stolen, turning point of the 1985 Ryder Cup, and perhaps tipping point of the whole competition. That's how big Stadler's miss was. It may have been the start of autumn in England, but this was also the start of the fall for the US team at The Belfry. A staggering error from a seasoned pro. If a rookie had missed you may well have understood why, but this was a major golf champion who you simply did not expect to do things like that.

It wasn't just the European spectators who were celebrating Stadler's aberration, as Alastair Tait reveals in Seve: A Biography of Seve Ballesteros. "There was bedlam in the European team room. Seve leapt out of his chair when the ball missed the hole. The chair went tumbling and Seve came down with a bang and landed on his back. His team-mates were hammering on the wall to the American team dressing room. The dream was alive. The Europeans had halted the American juggernaut. It was game on".

Game on most definitely. The Europeans now had the wind in their sails, and simply swamped the Americans in the afternoon foursomes. Jose-Maria Canizares and Jose Rivero hammered Tom Kite and Calvin Peete 7 and 5. Ballesteros and Pinero got back to winning ways, defeating Hal Sutton and Stadler, the latter understandably prowling around the Brabazon course with a face like thunder. And when Brown's delicious approach to a few inches at 16 gave him and Langer a win over Ray Floyd and Lanny Wadkins, Europe had taken the session 3-1 and took a 9-7 lead into the singles.

Stadler would at least have the consolation of winning his singles match against Woosnam, yet his was only one of four and a half points that the Americans would score on that famous Sunday, as the cup left the visitors' hands for the first time since 1957. Amongst the celebrations there were accusations from the Americans about the unsporting behaviour amongst some of the home supporters, Hal Sutton particularly critical of what he felt was a football ground mentality seeping into the event.

This situation would only get worse as the years passed, with Howard Clark revealing in this Independent article that he felt that the atmosphere changed from Stadler's putt onwards. "There was a kind of dull cheer, but our fans weren't cheering his miss, they were cheering Europe getting half a point. Unfortunately, it was misconstrued, and I think that led to Kiawah Island, where players were getting early-morning wake-up calls in their hotel rooms, and ultimately to Brookline". Poor Stadler. Taking the blame for everything.

It is a little simplistic to blame Stadler for the loss of the 1985 Ryder Cup, but there can be no debating that from this moment on that the momentum relentlessly shifted towards the European team. It was almost as if Stadler's putt was the crucial last crack in the damn, which once opened could not stem the flow of blue European water behind. Of the sixteen matches played after that putt, the score read Europe 10½ USA 5½. You can't blame Stadler solely for this, yet you can pinpoint this moment as the catalyst for the events that followed.

"Every time the Ryder Cup comes round, I've got to watch that all over again on telecast," Stadler said in this 2002 Telegraph piece. "I'll never understand the reaction - like I never three-putted before in my entire life? The putt that lost the Ryder Cup? Yeah, I've heard that a lot over the past 17 years, but I've never bought that particular story. What was it, the Saturday morning? There was still a lot of golf to be played." Very true. But as the likes of Rocca, Strange, Mahan and Furyk can attest to, scapegoats and the Ryder Cup walk hand in hand, but normally on the final Sunday (or Monday in Mahan's case).

Eighteen inches. Just eighteen inches. Such a short distance, yet if a journey of 1000 miles always starts with one step, then maybe, just maybe, we can say that the destination of the 1985 Ryder Cup can be traced back to this tiny putt. Of course it is nonsense to say that it was the putt that cost America the trophy, or that Stadler lost the Ryder Cup. But as turning points go, it must be right up there with Adrian Heath's goal at Oxford, David Campese's pass in the deciding Test of the Lions series in 1989, and Mike Gatting's reverse sweep in the 1987 World Cup final, as a significant moment in 1980s sport.

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