Philip Barker

Europe’s Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington may not realise it, but he is partially responsible for giving Olympic gold medallist Xander Schauffele the opportunity to complete a unique double. A decade or so ago, Harrington was part of the team which persuaded the International Olympic Committee to bring golf back into the Olympics.

If all goes well for the Americans at Whistling Straits in Haven in Wisconsin a week from today, Schauffele could become the first Olympic champion to lift the Ryder Cup in the same year.

Over the last 40 years, the competition has pitted the best American players against the cream of European golf. Put simply, the Ryder Cup has the X factor. In match play the overall match position is constantly evolving, often up to the very last putt. If next week’s contest lives up to the recent past, it will captivate a much wider sporting public than just "dyed in the wool" golfing aficionados.

The whole thing was the inspiration of Samuel Ryder. He was a successful British businessman who made his name and a fortune selling seeds to gardeners in the late 19th century. He was a one-time Mayor of St Albans, served as a local magistrate and was described in newspapers as a "prominent St Albans golfer".

He gave his backing to an international competition between the British and the Americans. This was held in June 1926 at the Wentworth course just outside London. Victory went to the home golfers but this competition was later deemed unofficial.

"It is hoped to make the match an annual affair or at the very outside, for it to be played at short and regular intervals" said newspaper reports.

In 1927 what is regarded as the first official match was held in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The deed of gift for the competition specified match play with a format of foursomes and singles matches although fourballs were added later.

The Americans set a pattern by winning the first event and dominated the first half-century of matches.

Since 1981 though, no fewer than seven editions have been single-point finishes and others have been almost as close. This coincided with the introduction of European players.

This year will represent the second time that the Cup has been contested in the same year as an Olympic golf tournament. It may well be the last.

Xander Schauffele will be seeking to add a Ryder Cup victory to he Olympic gold medal he won earlier in 2021 ©Getty Images
Xander Schauffele will be seeking to add a Ryder Cup victory to he Olympic gold medal he won earlier in 2021 ©Getty Images

Postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Ryder Cup golf has reverted to odd numbered years. The only previous three-year peace-time gap came in 2001, when the event was postponed to 2002 as a result of 9/11.

Harrington made the first of four winning appearances that year. He was also a winner in 2004, 2006 and finally in 2010 as a vital member of a team which triumphed at Celtic Manor in a truly memorable contest by a single point.

In 2009, Harrington had also been an equally vital component of golf’s Olympic task force. He joined American Michelle Wie, Norwegian Suzann Pettersen and Italian teenager Matteo Manassero to plead golf’s case for Olympic readmission.

"Golf is not a sport dominated by one country, it gives a chance for even a small country like Ireland to compete on the world stage," Harrington told the IOC Session in Copenhagen.

"As a child growing up in Ireland, the greatest plaudits were always given to the Olympics. If golf was included in the Olympics, it would inspire me to be an Olympian and if it so happened that I made it to the Olympics, I would cherish it for the rest of my life."

Harrington described an Olympic gold medal as "the rarest achievement in golf".

His dream was fulfilled when the IOC voted 63 to 27 to include at the Rio de Janeiro Games, the first time it had been included since 1904.

Harrington shot a three-under-par 281 to finish equal 21st. The Rio 2016 gold was won by Briton Justin Rose, who by a quirk of fate, missed out on a captain's pick for next week’s match.

The format selected for the Olympic competition was four rounds of stroke play. This had been proposed in Copenhagen.

The formula was "suggested by the top players in the world as the best and fairest way to identify a champion" International Golf Federation executive director Ty Votaw had said.

Many top players opted to give Rio 2016 a miss but there were fewer high profile absentees in Tokyo.

Justin Rose -Olympic champion at Rio 2016 - was controversially left out of the European team for the Ryder Cup ©Getty Images
Justin Rose -Olympic champion at Rio 2016 - was controversially left out of the European team for the Ryder Cup ©Getty Images

Rory McIlroy was fulsome in his endorsement of the tournament after just missing a bronze in his own Olympic debut.

"I've been saying all day I never tried so hard in my life to finish third," McIlroy said.

"It makes me even more determined, going to Paris and trying to pick one up."

In Tokyo, both men and women’s gold were won by a single stroke, with a playoff for silver in the women’s and a seven-way shootout for bronze in the men’s.

"Every shot counts, meaning all four days, including rounds where players traditionally jockey for position, were captivating," asserted BBC golf correspondent Iain Carter.

Yet one critic branded the format as "unimaginative".

"There is a 72-hole stroke play golf tournament nearly every week of the entire year, every year. This is the Olympics! Shouldn’t we find a way to spruce things up?" Dylan Dethier of wrote, asserting "The Olympic format is all wrong!"

Dethier also suggested running a concurrent team competition but this would be a non- starter, as Olympic regulations do not permit two gold medals to be won for the same event. This is why eventing includes an extra round of jumping to determine the individual medallists.

Palm Springs Desert Sun correspondent Larry Bohannan was another to suggest a different approach.

"It’s not that the format doesn’t produce legitimate gold, silver and bronze winners, but it might be a missed opportunity to do golf differently."

With Olympic status so highly prized, a number of sports have altered their format to try and achieve greater prominence at the Olympics and maximise television coverage, unsurprising perhaps with such huge sums now changing hands in television rights. NBCUniversal's deal for the Games spanning from Beijing 2022 to Brisbane in 2032 was for $7.65 billion (£4.51 billion/€5.49 billion).

At the Seoul 1988 Olympics, archery switched to match play from the traditional format used when the sport was first restored to the Olympic programme in 1972. Back then, the entire field shot two FITA (International Archery Federation) rounds of 36 arrows at 30 meters, 50m, 70m and 90m.

Could Olympic golf soon include a mixed team event? ©Getty Images
Could Olympic golf soon include a mixed team event? ©Getty Images

In Seoul, this portion of the competition was retained but only to determine the draw for elimination rounds.

Bohannan also suggested a formula where 36 holes of stroke play could be followed by a head-to-head match play component, similar to that seen in archery.

There also exists the intriguing possibility of a mixed team event.

When IOC President Thomas Bach proposed his "Agenda 2020" seven years a ago, mixed teams were seen as playing "a critical role in bringing further innovation to the Programme as well as fostering gender equality by increasing the number of women’s events and/or mixed team events".

In Tokyo, the early risers who watched the inaugural Olympic mixed team triathlon were rewarded with a compelling competition.

Meanwhile team mates Teddy Riner and Clarisse Agbegnenou, giants in the sport in their own right, shared in a memorable judo team gold medal in the Nippon Budokan, the very arena where their sport had made its Olympic bow back in 1964.

Athletics and swimming also included mixed team relays.

The IOC is already aware of the possibilities in golf. Two golfers from each country were paired up at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) and the exercise was repeated at the 2018 Games in Buenos Aires.

Advocates of such a move will surely be encouraged that other formats seen in the YOG have so often been transplanted to the Olympic Games themselves.