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The extraordinary legacy of Samuel Ryder

As the eyes of the sporting world turn to the Ryder Cup, Charlie Lemay went in search of the man who created the biggest event in golf

The extraordinary legacy of Samuel Ryder

Verulam Golf Club is a parkland layout nestled into the leafy suburbs of St Albans. It’s a quintessential English golf club, where the members enjoy 18 holes laid out by James Braid back in 1912. It is also the club where a local businessman took up the game in middle age, setting in train a series of events that transformed the professional game in England and led directly to the biggest event in golf. His name was Samuel Ryder.

Ryder was a cricketer in his youth, and by all accounts was a tidy spin bowler. But his business interests had long since superseded any sporting ambitions, before a period of ill health led a friend to suggest he take up golf. “What you need is fresh air and exercise,” said the Reverend Frank Wheeler, a local minister and keen golfer. “Come out with me on the golf course and hit a few balls.”

He wasn’t thrilled at the idea, perhaps harbouring the same prejudices many non-golfers still demonstrate today. But he was soon smitten, and he joined the club as a member two years later, becoming captain the following year – a position he would hold on two subsequent occasions, as well as serving on the greens committee for 20 years.

While Ryder had quickly become besotted, it wasn’t because the game came to him easily. “He wasn’t a single figure player – far from it,” says Paul Keen, General Manager at Verulam. I got the sense that Paul was being kind to one of his club’s most beloved sons.

It was on his annual holiday in Dorset that Ryder had the experience that would transform the professional game forever. He played golf with the Whitcombe brothers – Ernest, Charles and Reg – and was amazed at the trio’s level of skill. On enquiring whether they would contest The Open, he was troubled to learn the brothers were unable to make enough money to enter top tier competitions.

Ryder felt compelled to help. As a proud Englishman, how could he help his compatriots develop and compete with their American peers, who had the resources to travel and therefore to dominate the professional game?

He had money in the bank, thanks to a successful business that delivered seeds through the post for a pound. With his brother James, also a keen golfer, they decided to sponsor a tournament in the name of his business: Heath and Heather. The host, of course, was Verulam, and the first 36-hole medal in 1923 attracted a field of 48 professionals.

It may sound mundane, but this was a pioneering event. It was the first tournament to offer prize money to all 48 players, with first place taking the largest cut of the pot with the rest pocketing a portion relating to their finishing position – a sliding scale structure still used on the professional tours today.

Winner Arthur Havers took home £50 after a course record 67 in the afternoon, while the rest of the field shared £500 between them. The system ensured players expenses were covered, at the very least. 

Over the next few years, the Heath and Heather Tournament evolved from a strokeplay event into a series of singles and pairs matches, with tantalising matches on the cards. Verulam club pro Abe Mitchell, Charles and Ernest Mitchell, Walter Hagan and Ted Ray all took part.

Ryder also supported Mitchell by hiring the professional as his personal golf tutor. An annual fee of £500 allowed Mitchell the time to work on his own game, and to compete against the American professionals on a level playing field. Ryder saw his local pro as the British man most likely to challenge the US dominance of The Open Championship, which saw American players take home the Claret Jug 10 times in 12 years between 1922-1933.

By this point you may have connected the dots. A love of the game bordering on obsession. A yearning to take down the Americans. And a penchant for singles and pairs matchplay formats.

It was the following year – 1926 – that the first informal Ryder Cup took place, on the new East Course at Wentworth. The event was contested by teams representing Great Britain & Ireland and the United States, but is generally not included in the record books, largely because the American team included four Brits and an Australian.

But the concept of the match was cemented, and the idea of the trophy was formalised by Ryder, Braid, Mitchell and JH Taylor, sitting in the clubhouse at Veralum. The first official event took place at the Worcester Country Club, Massachusetts, in 1927.

Many believe the player on top of the trophy to be Ryder himself, but it is actually Mitchell. “To thank Abe Mitchell, he put him on top of the Ryder Cup Trophy,” explains Paul Keen. “He was quite a humble man and he wanted to thank his golf pro rather than make a splash about himself.”

Ryder continued to support professional golf in Britain until his death in 1936, promoting a series of events that offered prize money on a sliding scale. It’s one of life’s ironies that his name will forever be associated with the Ryder Cup, the one event when professional players turn out with no prize money and no appearance fees.

Mitchell went on to win 29 professional events, and became renowned for his understanding of the golf swing and revered as one of the great ball strikers. 
Charles Whitcombe amassed 17 wins, coming third in the Open in 1935, while brothers Ernest and Reg boasted 10 and 17 titles respectively. Reg Whitcombe finally claimed The Open and the title Champion Golfer of the Year at Royal St George’s in 1938.

Visitors to the clubhouse at Verulam can still see the original signed deeds of trust, prepared ahead of the first Ryder Cup, as well as the armchair where Ryder used to sit, and an original set of Mitchell’s golf clubs. And the club has ambitious plans to mark Ryder’s place in golfing history, with a new clubhouse and museum to celebrate the legacy of their famous son.

“Pre-Covid, we would get at least a couple a month coming to the club just to talk to someone about Samuel Ryder and the history of the club,” says Keen.

“We’re looking to build a new clubhouse and in there we want to put in a Samuel Ryder Museum. It would be about him, what he did and how it links with golf now and how the competition developed probably far more than even he imagined. Hopefully that will keep his legacy going forward for another 100 years plus.”

The members celebrate that legacy on the course too. Each year, the club hosts the Ryder Trophy, an open foresomes and fourball competition played every September. And a competition featuring hickory clubs and historic dress is a regular feature in the club’s busy fixture list.

Ryder’s story is of a golfer that gave much to the game he loved. He didn’t just plant the seed of the biggest event in golf, he also made it his mission to help British players stand toe-to-toe with their American counterparts.

"He was very much wanting the best for the golf club and the game of golf rather than for himself," says Keen. So as you enjoy the action at Whistling Straights this weekend, raise a glass to the seed merchant from St Albans who made it all possible.

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