The wildcard selections of Ryder Cup captains during the recent history of the event has often provided the odd talking point or twelve. From the moment the decision is announced, all of us have an opinion on the matter. Sometimes, even those who have missed out, can’t resist airing their view. Just ask.
Good things come to those who wait, though. All four of these men would eventually contribute varying lengths of text to the history books of this great event. But future Ryder Cup glory must have seemed a million miles away when bad news came their way during the 1980s.
1981: Seve Ballesteros
Europe had a hard enough task ahead of them as the 1981 Ryder Cup approached. Facing the US dream team – 11 of their players would win a major during their careers – surely European captain John Jacobs needed his best players at his disposal in order to at least compete.
Which makes the omission of Seve Ballesteros even more staggering. The Spaniard had been at loggerheads with the European Tournament Players’ Division over appearance money, resulting in Ballesteros playing fewer tournaments on the European Tour. To make the 1981 Ryder Cup team, the two-time major winner would be reliant on a wildcard selection.
The selection panel of Jacobs, Neil Coles (ETPD Chairman) and Bernhard Langer (leading European player) concluded that the team could live without the presence of Ballesteros, with rumours persisting that Coles in his role with the ETPD was adamant that the rebel should not be included.
“It was our opinion that in terms of unity it was best to leave him [Ballesteros] out on this occasion,” Jacobs said, after apparently asking other team members if Seve’s conflict with the European Tour would prove detrimental to team spirit. Publicly, Ballesteros accepted his fate. Secretly, he was fuming.
“I felt really upset and decided never to play the Ryder Cup again,” Ballesteros explains in Seve: The Official Autobiography. It would take the negotiation skills of Tony Jacklin and a pep talk with his brothers to change the course of history.
1981: Tony Jacklin
Another double major winner to miss out on selection was Tony Jacklin. Finishing 12th on the points list, Jacklin was reportedly rejected on the basis of age. At just 37, the decision seemed harsh.
“Jacklin is that bit older and it gets more difficult when you get older,” Jacobs related to the press. “I’m very disappointed,” Jacklin replied. “I was prepared to be left out, but not for that reason. Still, the fact that they have left out Ballesteros softens the blow a bit. He’s a world-class player and my omission must be secondary to his.”
Declaring that the panel was unanimous behind the selection of Peter Oosterhuis, Jacobs talked about the hairline decision that had separated Jacklin and Mark James. The choice of James was controversial enough even without the high profile omissions; his misconduct at the 1979 Ryder Cup had resulted in a £1,500 fine.
In fairness, James did end up with two wins in his matches Walton Heath (both on the opening day). But Oosterhuis’ three losses in as many matches did little to justify his wildcard pick. The nine point loss to the US suggested that adding European players had not helped the event. But through the inspiration of the two players rejected in 1981, the Ryder Cup was about to change forever.
1985: Christy O’Connor Jnr
Europe’s team that came so close to winning the 1983 Ryder Cup comprised the top twelve money winners on the European Tour, taking the whole selection process out of the hands of new skipper Jacklin. This changed from 1985 onwards, meaning more headaches for the captain, and a certain amount of heartbreak for some players.
Take the example of Christy O’Connor Jnr in 1985. Edged out of the ninth and final qualification position by Jose Maria Canizares at the B&H International Open, the Irishman missed out on the team by a mere £115.89.
With Nick Faldo and Ken Brown seemingly assured of wildcard picks, O’Connor now had to sweat it out with the likes of James and Gordon Brand Jnr to see if he could make his first appearance since 1975. They were all in for an unpleasant surprise.
Not many saw the selection of Jose Rivero coming, and the decision left O’Connor distraught. “I am disgusted and totally shattered,” he commented. “It was obvious from the television interview that Jacklin gave that I was never in contention for a place in the team unless I qualified automatically.”
“Of course I feel for Christy,” Jacklin admitted. “But my job is to win the Ryder Cup, not make friends.” The snub cut O’Connor deep, though; the only time he would speak to Jacklin in the next four years was to offer sympathy on hearing the news that Jacklin’s wife Vivien had died.
In hindsight, maybe Faldo should have taken the brave decision to stand down, such was the downturn in his fortunes during the period of his swing reconstruction. “Jacklin said he doesn’t want plodders, but he picked Faldo and he’s not even plodding,” an aggrieved Brand Jnr protested before the matches at the Belfry. Faldo would end the matches winless in two games.
Four years later, Sandy Lyle was honest enough to inform Jacklin that his poor form would not help the European cause at the Belfry, meaning O’Connor Jnr did finally get to play in a Ryder Cup at the Belfry. And we all have.
1989: Philip Walton
Jose-Maria Canizares was at it again in 1989. Four birdies in the last five holes of the German Open saw history repeat itself, as the Spaniard took the ninth spot in the team and edged out another Irishman.
Having missed the cut at the German Open, Philip Walton was vulnerable. When both Canizares and Langer finished in fifth-place at the German Open, Walton’s Ryder Cup hopes had been dashed right at the death.
Langer jumped up to tenth position and along with Howard Clark was assured of selection. But when Lyle made the ultimate sacrifice, Jacklin turned to O’Connor Jnr for his final choice. “Philip has only just failed to get in, but I decided to go for Christy’s greater experience,” Jacklin stated.
Walton learned his fate on calling his brother from a phone in Switzerland. After dropping from the final qualifying spot in the last tournament, it was a bitter pill to swallow. Blaming both Jacklin and Ballesteros for his omission – the latter informing Walton that his grip was the reason for his non-selection – Walton, like O’Connor, would have to wait to make his mark on the Ryder Cup.
In winning his singles match against Jay Haas at Oak Hill in 1995, Walton assured that the Ryder Cup would be in European hands for the first time since O’Connor’s heroics. Six years after the darkness, the dawn had finally arrived.