Who are the greatest players in the history of the Ryder Cup?

Every one of the 337 men who have competed in the biennial exhibition between teams of professionals representing the United States and continental Europe (Great Britain-Ireland before 1979) has been a great player in his own right. Some, however, rise higher than others in the crucible of international match-play competition.

Though identifying the greatest Ryder Cuppers obviously is an exercise in subjectivity, there are several ways to measure performance. Records in the three formats (singles, foursomes and fourball), winning percentages and pivotal matches won all figure in the equation.

On the U.S. side, it’s probably a toss-up between Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper for greatest ever, though one could make a case for Lanny Wadkins. On the other side of the Atlantic, there is little room for debate: Spain’s dashing Seve Ballesteros put the Euros on his back in the 1980s and turned a one-sided competition into a compelling rivalry.

We can say for certain who are not the greatest Ryder Cuppers. Tiger Woods (13-21-3) and Phil Mickelson (18-22-7) went a combined 31-43-10. Winning major championships was their thing. Beating the Europeans was not.

Raymond Floyd is regarded as one of the toughest competitors of his era, but he went 12-16-3 in the Ryder Cup. Jim Furyk lost twice as many matches as he won (10-20-4). Even Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, a generational talent, has a rather pedestrian 11-9-4 record.

The following is a subjective ranking of the 12 greatest American and European players. Three of the Euros who made the list – Spain’s Sergio Garcia and England’s Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood – can add to their records, and their legacies, next week at Whistling Straits.

UNITED STATES

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1. Arnold Palmer (6 Ryder Cups, 22-8-2 record)

He may not have matched rival Jack Nicklaus for major titles won, but Palmer was one of the most dominant players in Ryder Cup history. He went 5-0 in a 15-point blowout victory (23½-8½) in 1967 and went 3-1-1 as a winning playing captain in ’63. He was unbeaten with partners Billy Casper (3-0), Dow Finsterwald (2-0), Gardner Dickinson (2-0) and Julius Boros (1-0).

2. Billy Casper (8 Ryder Cups, 20-10-7 record)

Casper was overshadowed in his prime by Palmer and Nicklaus, but he was every bit their equal in the Ryder Cup. He scored 23½ points, still a record for the United States. Only Garcia (25½), England’s Nick Faldo (25) and Germany’s Bernhard Langer (24) have scored more points. Casper went 6-2-2 in singles and never played on a losing Ryder Cup team.

3. Lanny Wadkins (8 Ryder Cups, 20-11-3 record)

Known as a ferocious competitor, Wadkins was in his element at the Ryder Cup. His 20 match victories ties him with Casper for second place on the U.S. side, trailing only Palmer. In the seminal 1991 “War by the Shore” Ryder Cup, Wadkins teamed with the equally steely Hale Irwin to go 2-0 and then beat Mark James in singles.

4. Sam Snead (7 Ryder Cups, 10-2-1 record)

Snead’s record would have been even better had the Ryder Cup not been canceled during World War II, which deprived the Slammer of three additional appearances. He was dominant in singles, winning six of seven matches – two by scores of 6 and 5 and two by scores of 5 and 4. Somehow, he lost 1-up to Harry Weetman in 1953.

5. Walter Hagen (5 Ryder Cups, 7-1-1 record)

One of the game’s all-time greats at match play, Hagen lost just one of nine Ryder Cup matches and captained the first six United States teams. In a 36-hole foursomes match in 1931, Hagen and partner Denny Shute crushed George Duncan and Arthur Havers, 10 and 9, tied for the largest margin of victory in Ryder Cup history.

6. Jack Nicklaus (6 Ryder Cups 17-8-3 record)

Nicklaus compiled a remarkable 8-1-0 record in foursomes but was only 4-4-2 in singles. One of those halves, though, resulted in a historic 16-16 tie at Royal Birkdale in 1969, when Nicklaus conceded a 2-foot putt on the final hole to England’s Tony Jacklin. “The Concession,” as it has come to be known, is considered one of the great acts of sportsmanship in golf history.

7. Lee Trevino (6 Ryder Cups, 17-7-6 record)

The “Merry Mex” won the U.S. Open and Open Championship in 1971, then capped his season by winning both of his singles matches at the Ryder Cup (back in the day when there were morning and afternoon singles). He finished his Ryder Cup career by going 4-0 in 1981, winning two matches with Jerry Pate and one with Larry Nelson, then beating Scotland’s Sam Torrance, 5 and 3, in singles.

8. Gene Littler (7 Ryder Cups, 14-5-8 record)

In his prime, Gene “The Machine” was perhaps the game’s most consistent player and preeminent ball-striker. His fairways-and-greens game was tailor-made for the Ryder Cup partner formats; he went 5-0-4 in fourballs and 4-3-1 in foursomes.

9. Hale Irwin (5 Ryder Cups, 13-5-2 record)

The three-time U.S. Open champion went 6-1-0 in foursomes and 3-1-2 in singles. A gritty, take-no-prisoners competitor, he had winning records in all three formats (4-3-0 in fourball) and scored points in 75% of his matches.

10. Tom Kite (7 Ryder Cups, 15-9-4 record)

An underrated player who twice won the Vardon Trophy, Kite never lost in Ryder Cup singles, going 5-0-2. Among those he beat: Jacklin, Scotland’s Sandy Lyle (twice) and England’s Howard Clark (8 and 7). He said his greatest thrill in golf was captaining the 1997 team.

11. Tom Watson (4 Ryder Cups, 10-4-1 record)

Watson excelled in the team formats, going 8-2-1 as a partner (4-1-1 in foursomes, 4-1-0 in fourball). Unfortunately, his Ryder Cup career ended on a sour note in 2014, when the U.S. lost and Mickelson criticized Watson’s leadership style as captain.

12. Tony Lema (2 Ryder Cups, 8-1-2 record)

Lema’s inclusion on this list comes with an asterisk because he played on only two teams before dying in a plane crash at age 32 in 1966. He lost just one of 11 Ryder Cup matches – and that was a 1-up fourball defeat with Julius Boros in ‘65. There’s no telling how good he would have been.

EUROPE

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1. Seve Ballesteros (8 Ryder Cups, 20-12-5 record)

No player on either side is more synonymous with the Ryder Cup than the late Spaniard, whose passion, brilliant talent and fierce pride helped Europe turn the tables on the previously dominant U.S. team. Ballesteros was only 2-4-2 in singles but was perhaps the greatest Ryder Cup partner in history, going 10-3-1 in foursomes and 8-5-2 in fourball. He derived enormous satisfaction out of beating the Americans, and did it often.

2. Colin Montgomerie (8 Ryder Cups, 20-9-7 record)

Fans of the U.S. team heaped plenty of abuse on Monty, but “Mrs. Doubtfire” had the last laugh, helping Europe to five victories and going 6-0-2 in singles. He beat Lee Janzen, Ben Crenshaw, Payne Stewart, Scott Hoch and David Toms twice. In 1991, he won the last four holes in his match against Mark Calcavecchia to pull out a halve.

3. Sergio Garcia (9 Ryder Cups, 22-12-7 record)

El Nino will have a chance to add to his tremendous Ryder Cup record at Whistling Straits. He has played in 41 of a possible 45 matches, and with 25½ total points is the leading scorer in the event’s history. No matter his form going into the Ryder Cup, Garcia always manages to be a thorn in the Americans’ side. He is 10-4-3 in fourball.

4. Jose Maria Olazabal (7 Ryder Cups, 18-8-5 record)

Olazabal fashioned an incredible 16-4-4 record in the partner formats. As a Ryder Cup rookie in 1987, he teamed with Ballesteros to go 3-1 as Europe won on U.S. soil for the first time. The “Spanish Armada” also went 3-0-1 in 1989, 3-0-1 in 1991 and 2-1 in 1993. The duo’s record together: 11-2-2.

5. Nick Faldo (11 Ryder Cups, 23-19-4 record)

Sir Nick holds the European record for total Ryder Cup matches played (46) and overall Ryder Cup record for matches won (23). He teamed with Ballesteros, Lyle, Langer and Ian Woosnam of Wales to form a nucleus that would turn the Ryder Cup into a true competition in the 1980s. Faldo went 10-6-2 in foursomes.

6. Bernhard Langer (10 Ryder Cups, 21-15-6 record)

Langer finished his Ryder Cup career with 24 points, trailing only Garcia and Faldo. He was 11-6-1 in foursomes, but is perhaps best remembered for missing a 6-foot putt on the final hole in 1991, allowing the Americans to squeak out a 14½-13½ victory in the “War by the Shore” at Kiawah Island.

7. Ian Poulter (6 Ryder Cups, 14-6-2 record)

Just as Garcia raises his game for the Ryder Cup, Poulter plays his best golf in the biennial matches. Though he has never won a major championship and has just three victories on the PGA Tour, Poulter seems to make every putt he looks at in the Ryder Cup and is 5-0-1 in singles. At 45, he isn’t done yet.

8. Peter Oosterhuis (6 Ryder Cups, 14-11-3 record)

Though his record is not much better than .500, Oosterhuis was Europe’s best player in the 1970s, when the U.S. was a dominant force. The Englishman went 6-2-1 in singles, beating Littler, Palmer (twice), Johnny Miller, J.C. Snead and Jerry McGee and halving with Trevino.

9. Lee Westwood (10 Ryder Cups, 20-18-6 record)

Back for more at Whistling Straits, the 48-year-old Westwood can add to his 20 match victories, bettered only by three Europeans (Faldo, Garcia and Langer) and one American (Palmer). He is 3-7-0 in singles but is 17-11-6 in the partner formats.

10. Justin Rose (5 Ryder Cups, 13-8-2 record)

Rose was left off this year’s team after playing in the last four Ryder Cups, but there’s a good chance the Americans will see him again in 2023 and perhaps beyond. The 41-year-old Englishman has been one of the best players in the world for nearly 20 years. His fourball record is 7-2-1.

11. Ian Woosnam (8 Ryder Cups, 14-12-5 record)

“Woosie” stood just 5-foot-4 but was a giant-killer in Ryder Cup fourball, going 10-3-1. He never won a singles match (0-6-2) but was a key member of those great European teams in the 1980s. In 1987, he went 3-0-1 with Faldo as his partner as the Euros won for the first time on U.S. soil.

12. Bernard Gallacher (8 Ryder Cups, 13-13-5 record)

Gallacher had the misfortune of bad timing in his Ryder Cup career. The Scot made every team from 1969 to 1983, when the U.S. squads were loaded with major championship winners. Nevertheless, Gallacher went 4-3-4 in singles, beating Trevino, Nicklaus, Wadkins and Charles Coody.

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