Britain was great in '57, but momentum didn't endure
Dai Rees called the 1957 Ryder Cup “the greatest shot in the arm British golf has ever had.”
The Welshman was allowed to be jubilant. After all, he’d just captained Great Britain to a 7½-4½ victory, its first win in 24 years.
It turned out to be nothing of the sort. It was the last time a British team won. (In fact, it marked the lone victory for an American opponent until 1985, covering a span of 21 Ryder Cups.) Rather than a shot in the arm, it proved but a slight sign of recovery in a dying patient. By 1977, the British team had to be brought back to life in a different form.
Jack Nicklaus managed to breathe new life into the match by suggesting to Lord Derby, then the president of the British and Irish PGA, that Europeans should be included in the match. Nicklaus knew that without the Europeans, the match was in danger of remaining a non-event and that 1957 probably wouldn’t be repeated.
“The jubilation lasted about a month, and then things returned to the way they had been,” said Peter Alliss, one of three surviving members – with Christy O’Connor Sr. and Bernard Hunt – of the victorious 1957 team. “There was no thought of any such thing as a lasting legacy or building on the victory. We were club professionals. The celebrations were jolly and lasted long into the night, but we had to get back to our club jobs the following day.”
Alliss was one of three British players not to win a point at Lindrick Golf Club in Worksop, England. The others were 1951 Open Championship winner Max Faulkner and Harry Weetman.
Unlike Faulkner and Weetman, though, Alliss played one of the eight final-day singles matches.
He lost, 2 and 1, to Fred Hawkins.
“I have mixed feelings,” Alliss said. “I was happy we won but unhappy I didn’t contribute a point.”
It was Alliss’ second Ryder Cup, following his debut in 1953. He played in another six matches and counted singles victories over Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper and Ken Venturi among his Ryder Cup exploits. However, the closest he got to another team victory was the tied match at Royal Birkdale in 1969.
To this day, Alliss, 81, has no idea why Great Britain won in 1957 and not again until 1985, after continental Europeans had become eligible.
“I know everyone says the U.S. team became even stronger in later years with the likes of Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Casper and others, and maybe our players were overwhelmed,” Alliss said. “I never felt overwhelmed. I was always so nervous that I was going to get beat 9 and 8 that I focused more. I didn’t feel players on later teams were overwhelmed, but maybe they were.”
The home team lost the opening foursomes session, 3-1, in 1957. They played 36 holes in those days, and it was a miserable two rounds of golf for Rees’ team. Maybe that had something to do with the win.
“We were humiliated in the British newspapers,” Alliss said. “Insulted. I think that actually helped because there was a feeling of, We’ll go out and show them.”
It wouldn’t be a Ryder Cup without some sort of controversy, and the 1957 match was no exception. Weetman reacted badly to being left out of the singles, but relations between him and Rees had been strained even before the match began.
“In those days, we weren’t allowed to bring our wives. Harry wasn’t happy with that because the Americans got to bring theirs. Anyway, Harry and his wife Freda were very rude to Dai, very insulting.”
As Weetman sulked, Faulkner played the role of cheerleader. He ran around the course urging his teammates on. The home team stormed back to take the singles, 6½-1½, to win the match for the first time since 1933. The crowds got into the occasion, too, and that caused some controversy. Some American players complained about their behavior.
Around 14,000 fans turned up for the final day. A major road, the A57, runs through the middle of the golf course. The crowds were so large that the road had to be closed for the two days. There were no gallery ropes in those days, and fans swarmed all over the place.
“It did get a bit chaotic,” Alliss said. “It wasn’t like today, either, where people turn up at golf tournaments as if they are going to the beach. In those days, men wore trilby hats and jackets and ties. Women wore high heels and long dresses. It was terribly formal. As the day went on and news got around that there was a chance of us winning, the crowds did become a little excited. We hadn’t won for so long that I suppose some behaved in a very un-British way. But it was nothing like what happened at Kiawah Island (in 1991). That was the worst behavior I ever saw at a Ryder Cup.”
The late Ken Bousfield got the winning point when he defeated Lionel Hebert, 4 and 3. Bousfield died in May 2000, but his memory of the crowds on Oct. 5, 1957, was full of positive images. Shortly before he died, the six-time Ryder Cup player revealed a treasured scrapbook of the match.
“I’d never seen such scenes of jubilation before that day, and I never saw them again,” Bousfield said.
“It was the greatest day of my career. The feeling of euphoria was palpable. It was incredible.”
American Dow Finsterwald, playing his first of four consecutive Ryder Cups, concedes “the inclusion of the Europeans helped the team.”
“I was captain of the team in 1977,” said Finsterwald, 83, “and they were thinking about making the change and they asked me as captain what I thought. I said, ‘You can include the whole world and we’ll still beat ’em.’ It took them until ’85 to win.”
Rees played in nine Ryder Cups from 1937 to ’61, acting as playing captain in his last four appearances. Yet 1957 was his only taste of victory.
“We didn’t talk about inspirational figures in those days,” Alliss said.
“Dai had a boyish enthusiasm that was infectious. Maybe he did inspire us to victory; I don’t know. But he didn’t give some big rousing speech the night before the singles. It was more simple, like, ‘Come on; we can do this.’ ”
They did, but never did so again.
– Adam Schupak contributed