The mental_floss Guide to the Ryder Cup

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Golf's Ryder Cup takes over Louisville's Valhalla Golf Club this weekend as Europe and the United States vie for world supremacy in the sport. The biennial event is a big date on golf's calendar, but what are the origins and history of this heated tradition? Let's try to answer a few questions.

1. How long has the Ryder Cup been around?

The idea of pitting the top American golf pros against their British counterparts was the brainchild of Sylvanus P. Jermain, the president of Toledo's Inverness Club. Jermain first presented the idea in 1921, and the two countries played an unofficial exhibition match that year. The British creamed the Americans 9-3. A 1926 rematch was even more disastrous for the Americans, who lost this tilt 13.5 to 1.5. The event became an actual competition in 1927 in Worcester, Massachusetts.

2. Why is it called the Ryder Cup?

The 1926 exhibition contest drew a healthy crowd, but no one was quite as interested as Samuel Ryder, an Englishman who had become quite wealthy selling packets of seeds. Ryder was an enthusiastic amateur golfer and a devoted student of British star Abe Mitchell. After the exhibition ended, Mitchell and his fellow golfers talked Ryder into donating a trophy to get the two countries to compete on a regular basis. Ryder also offered five pounds apiece to the members of the winning team, a post-match party, and picked up a shortfall in the British travel budget for the first Ryder Cup in 1927.

3. What's the trophy like?

Ryder commissioned a large gold chalice for the winning country and shelled out 250 pounds for its design and creation. The 17-inch trophy reaches its peak with a tiny golfer modeled after Ryder's favorite British star and tutor, Abe Mitchell.

4. Wait, British and American golfers? Aren't there Europeans in this year's Ryder Cup?

Yes, there are. Although the British pummeled the U.S. team in those two early exhibitions, the tables turned once the official Ryder Cup began. Americans won the inaugural event in 1927, and although the British team won in 1929 and 1933, they only picked up one more victory in the next 50 years. During the 1977 Cup, American legend Jack Nicklaus pointed out that the Cup's popularity would probably wane if something didn't level the playing field. After some debate and the approval of Samuel Ryder's family, organizers decided to transform the British team into a European squad for the 1979 Ryder Cup. Although the American team won the first three Cups against the European team, the Euros have taken eight of the last 11 meetings, including a three-Cup winning streak coming into this year's competition.

5. What's the format of the Ryder Cup?

Every part of the Ryder Cup tournament is played according to match play rules, which means that the two teams compete to win each hole and whichever side wins more holes over the course of the round wins the game. Each game won earns the player or team's side a point. Ties are "halved," which means each team gets half a point.

Various rounds throughout the weekend have different structures, though. This year four groups of two-man teams will pair off in fourball play on Friday and Saturday. In fourball matches, two golfers from each team play each hole on their own, and the team whose player has the lowest score on the hole wins the hole. On Friday and Saturday four more groups of two-man teams will face off in foursomes play in which each team just plays a single ball and teammates alternate shots. Whichever team holes the ball in the fewest strokes wins the hole. Finally, on Sunday each team sends out 12 golfers for one-on-one singles match play against a member of the opposite team. Lowest score on each hole wins it. Whichever team wins the most points over the course of the 28-game weekend wins the Ryder Cup.

6. What happens if the two teams tie?

In the event of a tie, the Cup stays with the defending champs, so if the U.S. wants the hardware, it needs to win outright. This rule came into play in 1969 and again in 1989.

7. What do the team captains do?

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This year's captains, Nick Faldo for the Euros and Paul Azinger for the Americans (above), won't be playing, but they'll play a crucial role in their team's chances. PGA Tour earnings or World and European Points ranking determine most spots on the teams' rosters, but the respective captains get to pick the final four golfers for the American squad and the last two for the Euro team. The captains determine the team pairings for the early rounds, an important task that requires a keen eye for team chemistry. The captain of the home team also gets to determine the format of certain rounds; this year Azinger used this power to change what had been a better-ball format back to the alternate-shot foursomes.

8. Who's the best Ryder Cup golfer ever?

Hard to say, but Nick Faldo deserves to be in the conversation. The English great has appeared in a record 11 Ryder Cups, and has won more points (25) than anyone else in Ryder Cup history. He's the captain of this year's Euro squad, but like we said, he won't be playing. German pro Bernhard Langer isn't too far behind Faldo, though. The winner of the 1983 and 1985 Masters has the second-most points in Ryder Cup history (24) and is tied for second-most appearances with Irish pro Christy O'Connor, Sr.

Ethan Trex co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

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September 19, 2008 - 7:08am
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