The maturation of the Ryder Cup

Unlike the old days, nobody feels safe about predicting the outcome. For years, the Americans showed up at the Ryder Cup, hit a few warm-up balls, then waxed the competition. It was as easy as sticking a tee in the ground.

Anyone who follows the biennial competition knows that has hardly been the case for most of the past two decades. And the Ryder Cup changed right along with the competition, making this week's event at Oakland Hills CC in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., unlike any other golf tournament.

The atmosphere, the pressure. It's just ... different. Much different. Jay Haas knows, and he has the benefit of perspective. Haas, 50, played in his first Ryder Cup in 1983 and wouldn't believe how much the event's stature had risen by 1995, his next appearance.

"It changed enormously," said Haas, an at-large selection this year of U.S. captain Hal Sutton. "It looked like a practice round the last day in '83. There were not many people out there. The players themselves, I believe, were very intense and have always been intense about it. But I don't think the fans really got into it.

"There was an incredible jump in intensity and I think that was a surprise to me in '95 at Oak Hill, how much different the Ryder Cup had become. So I'm expecting more of the same this year."

Now, the Ryder Cup is big business -- one of the most highly anticipated golf events of the year.

Sutton's team of 12 players and the European team captained by Germany's Bernhard Langer will arrive Monday and be subjected to a scene that goes beyond that of a major championship.

According to Golf Digest, the Ryder Cup will generate in the neighborhood of $70 million for the PGA of America, which runs the event. In recent weeks, 60 customized chalets have been erected along with several giant tent cities that house 235 tables for the official Ryder Cup-sanctioned activities. These 10-person tables inside huge tents filled with bars, giant TVs and buffets have sold for $60,000 apiece. The customized chalets sold for $175,000 to $350,000.

For each day of the event, 38,000 tickets have been sold and were gone more than a year ago. Other revenue sources are merchandise sales, concession and television rights fees, which went for about $15 million to NBC.

And to think, 21 years ago in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., just 14,000 people attended the final day and spectators could purchase tickets at the gate for $15. There was TV coverage, but it was just two hours the final day. Now, the opening ceremonies get two hours of coverage, followed by 11 hours each on Friday and Saturday and another six on Sunday.

"When I played for the first time in 1979, you knew the outcome of the Ryder Cup," said Tom Kite, who captained a losing U.S. team in 1997 and played in seven Ryder Cups. "That was the first year Europe was brought into the equation, and '83 was probably the first time that, all of a sudden, it became competitive. The only reason the media got behind it, then the public got behind it, is because it became competitive."

Kite's first Ryder Cup was the beginning of the change, although nobody realized it at the time. In 1979, all of continental Europe was eligible for the team. From the event's inception in 1927 through 1977, the U.S. team held an 18-3-1 edge over the one made up of players from Great Britain and Ireland. But two of the U.S. defeats came in the first four matches; the U.S. had lost just once in 18 competitions through 1977.

Although the U.S. trounced Europe in both 1979 and 1981, a team of European stars including Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle and Langer was emerging. And by 1983, they were quite formidable, led by captain Tony Jacklin, an Englishman who had won the 1969 British Open and 1970 U.S. Open.

Jacklin, who had been left off the 1981 team and was miffed at the snub, needed to be talked into taking the job. He believed that the European team was always made to feel inferior and that changes were necessary in order to be competitive.

"I said I'll only do it if I get carte blanche to do it the way I wanted to do it," said Jacklin, 60, who went on to captain the team four times, posting a 2-1-1 record. "I wanted three captain's picks, which I felt we needed. There were all the clothing issues, the airplane, the Concorde. Americans were flying the Concorde, and we were in the economy section of British Airways not knowing who was going to buy the Coke. It was ridiculous. We were 2-down before we ever hit a shot, just on our self-esteem."

Jacklin's first team in '83 nearly pulled off the upset against Jack Nicklaus' squad, falling 14½ to 13½ only when American Lanny Wadkins hit a clinching wedge shot to within a foot at the final green.

If Europe's close call was viewed as a fluke, it no longer was two years later when the Europeans won for the first time since 1957, a convincing 16½ to 11½ victory in England. When they came to Nicklaus' Muirfield Village Golf Club in 1987 and won for the first time on U.S. soil, the game was really on.

"You knew it was different when we lost in '87," said Dave Stockton, who captained the 1991 team to victory. "That was with Jack Nicklaus as the captain at Muirfield, Jack's course. If we could get beat at Nicklaus' course, we could get beat anywhere. And that's how it is now. It is a very even match. Mistakes are magnified. Every little thing counts. The teams are always very even. It doesn't matter which side of the pond we're on."

"People over here had underestimated their players for a long time," said Ben Crenshaw, who captained the winning '99 team. "They had some outstanding individuals. Woosnam, Faldo, Ballesteros, (Jose Maria) Olazabal. You can go on and on. Maybe as early as when Jack was the captain in Palm Beach Gardens where Lanny Wadkins hit that incredible shot against (Jose Maria) Canizares. He made that clutch shot, otherwise we would have been tied. It's a heck of a contest. [The Europeans] do a great job of playing together. I think people understand how close it is now."

Since 1979, the U.S. has six wins, Europe has five wins, and there was one tie. But heading into this week's matches, the U.S. has just two victories since 1993 and is 4-1-5 since 1983. And were it not for a miracle putt by Justin Leonard in 1999, the American record might be even worse.

"The caliber of golf that's played in the Ryder Cup matches is second to none," said Wadkins, the losing U.S. captain in 1995. "It has always been a big deal with the players to make the team. Obviously when the Europeans got involved in '79, the competition got keener. And when they won it in '85, it was kind of like the America's Cup.

"All of a sudden, it wasn't a given that we were going to win the Ryder Cup. With the closeness of the matches, I think the thing has really captured the imagination of the public. We've got 24 of the world's best players going head to head in match play. And I think that excites everybody. It's something we just don't see."

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.