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  • Alistair Tait

The Man Behind The Ryder Cup

The world of golf should rejoice that Samuel Ryder wasn’t the healthiest man in England around the turn of 20th century. Had he been a fine physical specimen, the Ryder Cup might not exist.

The businessman put so much effort into his successful seed empire his health deteriorated. Golf was seen as a way to get him out in the fresh air for much needed exercise.

Samuel Ryder was born in Sale, England, in 1858. He joined his father’s horticultural business when he left school. He soon realised there were only two firms in the country selling seeds through the postal system. The ambitious youngster instantly recognised a gap in the market. Both firms only sold to large companies or estates, selling seeds in packets costing between one and ten shillings. Ryder realised there was a market for cheaper packets that could be sold to the general public at a penny a packet. He tried to get his father enthused, but the elder Ryder didn't share his son’s vision.

So convinced was Ryder of his idea that in 1895 he left his father’s employment to set up on his own. He settled in the ancient city of St Albans, 30 miles north of London. One of the earliest Roman settlements in Britain – the Romans called it Verulamium – the city had three railway stations, a good road system and low rents and rates. Ryder grew to love his adopted home.

“St Albans is the centre of the Kingdom,” Ryder once said.

Ryder set up shop in a small shed on the property he and his wife owned. He called the company Ryder & Son in deference to his father. He bought seeds at wholesale prices, then produced catalogues he touted to St Albans residents on a Saturday. Orders started coming in on Monday, and Ryder mailed the seeds in packets with the words:

“All seeds in penny packets from orchids to mustard and cress.”

By 1903, the business had grown to the point where he purchased a 50,000 square foot plot at 27 Holywell Hill, St Albans. He built the largest warehouse in the city at the time. Eight years later, he erected a magnificent Georgian building for the company’s offices. The building (above) still stands today and houses French chain restaurant Café Rouge.

At its height, Ryder and Son had 300 employees to dispatch one million catalogues all over the world and process 10,000 orders per day.

Ryder became St Albans mayor in 1905. Running a successful business and looking after the interests of St Albans took its toll. On the advice of the Reverend Frank Wheeler, minister of Trinity Congressional Church, Ryder took up golf. After a year of practice under the tuition of golf professional John Hill, Ryder joined Verulam Golf Club at the annual subscription of four guineas a year.

Ryder got involved in golf tournaments partially to help promote the Heath & Heather company he founded with his brother James, and to help the lot of British golf professionals.

Both avid golfers, the brothers decided to sponsor a golf tournament at Verulam to promote Heath & Heather, and to assist professionals. On the 10th of July 1923, 48 leading British professionals took part in a 36–hole tournament. Seven Open champions – George Duncan, Alex Herd, J.H. Taylor, Arthur Havers, Ted Ray, Harry Vardon and Verulam course architect James Braid took part.

The prize fund was £450, a huge purse then. Minimum prize was £5 with first place money of £50, just £25 less than top prize in the Open Championship. Lunch, tea, caddie fees and train fares were all paid for. Havers won to prove his victory at Troon two weeks earlier was no fluke.

In 1924, the Ryder brothers set up a challenge match between Charles Whitcombe, winner of the Daily Mail tournament, and rising star Abe Mitchell. Played on 5th of June 1924, it was seen as a warm up for the Open Championship. Mitchell won 5&4.

The above match may have been the inspiration behind the idea for a match against the top Americans. Ryder seems to have had some sort of British/American challenge match in mind, according to St Albans newspaper the Herts Advertiser, which reported:

“Heath & Heather were contemplating challenging the Americans who were coming over (to play in the Open Championship) and, if that challenge was issued, and accepted, Mitchell and Whitcombe would be asked to be in the English team.”

The Ryder brothers took a step closer to that idea when they set up a 72-hole United States versus Great Britain match that pitted Walter Hagen and Macdonald Smith against George Duncan and Mitchell.

Prize fund was £1,000, and the British pair took the bulk of it thanks to an out-of-form Hagen.

Such was the Ryders' fascination with contests between British and American professionals that on 11th of July 1925 victorious Open Champion Jim Barnes was invited to take on Mitchell at Verulam in another 36-hole America versus Britain affair. The Herts Advertiser previewed the match with the following statement:

“Mr. Samuel Ryder and Mr. James Ryder, of Heath & Heather Ltd., originated the idea of an annual match between American and British golfers of front rank.”

Mitchell won the match 7&6 and earned himself 150 guineas.

Heather & Heather stopped sponsoring golf tournaments in 1925 so they could provide sponsorship for Mitchell. He was the man the Ryders saw as Britain’s best hope of wrestling the Open Championship away from the United States. However, James Ryder opted out of the arrangement, leaving his brother to look after Mitchell.

In October of that year, Abe Mitchell became private coach to Samuel Ryder on a salary of £500 per year with £250 in expenses.

The biennial match as we now know it crystallised in the spring of 1926. Ryder set up a contest between British and American golfers 4-5 June at Wentworth Golf Club that pitted 10 American golfers against 10 British players in foursomes and singles play. Britain won the match 13-1.

Ryder soon commissioned London company Mappin and Webb to design a trophy that could be contested on regular basis. He paid 100 guineas and decreed the figure atop the trophy would be none other than Mitchell.

Thus, the Ryder Cup was born.

The trophy traveled to Worcester Golf & Country Club in 1927 for the first official Ryder Cup match. Ryder’s largesse did not just extend to commissioning a trophy – he also contributed £400 to help with travel expenses.

Ryder’s aim in creating the trophy and the biennial match was to further the prospects of British golfers and the game of golf.

“There is nothing like sport to join communities together,” he once said. “I look upon the royal and ancient game as being a powerful force that influences the best things in humanity. I hope I have done several things in my life for the benefit of my fellow men, but I am certain I have never done a happier thing than this.”

Generations of golfers and golf fans say Amen to that.

#JustSaying: “It is sad when we have to rely on outsiders, even if they are our continental friends, to strengthen our team so that we can give the Americans a real match. … One wonders what Sam Ryder … would think of it all. We find it hard to imagine that British golfing fans will be able to muster the same patriotic fever for Messers Ballesteros, Pinero and Garrido as they would for the home-bred squad.” 1978 Golf Illustrated editorial

Note: This is an edited version of an article I wrote for the 2008 Ryder Cup programme, an article that couldn’t have been produced if not for the late Alan Booth, a font of all knowledge on Samuel Ryder

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Sep 25, 2021

Dave: I used to live in St Albans. It's a great wee city. My best mate used to be the pro at Verulam GC, so I've played the course many times too. Alan Booth was a former editor of the St Albans local newspaper, the Herts Advertiser. Alan actually attended a Ryder Cup at Birkdale with Samuel Ryder's youngest daughter Joan.


Sep 25, 2021

Wonderful look back... I somewhat knew the "order of facts" of early Ryder Cup history, but never really understood Ryder's motivations and how it all came about. Thanks for coloring in the story...

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