It’s a wild morning on the links of Royal Porthcawl. The sweet chap once known as the Welsh Bulldog is watching the younger men at the Senior Open from the pavilion when a realization dawns on him.
“You’re here to make me feel old, aren’t you?” he says, and to judge from those who know Brian Huggett, it’s the same glint in his eye now as it was then. He’s partly right, because we’re here to talk about the Ryder Cup and when it comes to one of the biggest sporting events, it has several distinguishing features. Not least of all is that at the age of 86 he is the longest surviving captain in Europe. “I was never told, but I assumed it had to be that way,” he says. “Well, you did it – now I feel really old!”
He’s a great guy, Huggett – a bird, an eagle and an albatross all wrapped up in a hole in one. He hasn’t swung at a ball in a decade because it hurts to grip a club, but he could knock it over into thin air in his 70s.
Now he watches every chip and putt from his home in Ledbury. He is looking at an alien world. When he topped the European rankings of earnings in 1968, his season’s earnings were £8,400, and his combined purse for finishing second and third at the Open in 1962 and 1965 was less than two thousand dollars. “Not quite what the boys get now,” he says with the biggest grin.
And yet, despite all the changes in golf’s most confused era, much remains the same, and as we approach the 44th Ryder Cup, Huggett offers a fascinating glimpse into an earlier era. His thoughts go back to a particularly stimulating day in the 18th edition of 1969.
Brian Huggett is Europe’s longest surviving Ryder Cup skipper at the age of 86 (seen with a trophy he received for his captaincy)
Huggett played in six Ryder Cups between 1963 and 1975 and was a non-playing captain in 1977
Huggett has relived past Ryder Cup memories with Mail Sport, including slights, putts and police escorts
That was his third of six as a player and eight years before he became captain in 1977, which in turn was shortly before he was a key part of a meeting that changed the course of the game as we know it.
“If you want to know more about the competitiveness of the Cup at the time, I’ll tell you a story,” he says. “What you do know is that it wasn’t close on the course, but they still had fun hitting us, the buggers. But don’t think we didn’t show up to fight. It was Britain versus the US then, not Europe. So normally we could call on six of our twelve to get a point, and I counted myself as one of those points, and the other six might not. The US would have all the stars in their fancy pants.
‘Now 1969 in Birkdale was interesting. However, we had been badly beaten so many times in a row (five defeats in a row) and in ’69 it was different. That was the famous draw, 16-16, but I was with Bernard Gallacher and we were the most fervent of the Brits. And we were against Dave Hill and Ken Still – they were fiery too.
“On the first green I got a little annoyed because they were so close when I was putting that I would see if one of them wiggled their toe. When we got to the seventh, it all turned upside down. They accused us of being out of turn, the referee was called, as were the captains, Eric Brown and Sam Snead, and we rowed all the way to the eighth. By the time we walked onto the fairway, there was a police escort in case the crowd joined in. I can tell you: wanting to win with passion is nothing new!
‘Another Ryder Cup makes my point clear. Lee Trevino came up to me on the first tee in St. Louis (in 1971, also won by the USA). He looked at what we were wearing, which might have been less colorful, and said, “Brian, do you feel inferior wearing those boring colors?” There may be more reasons for the mind games now that it’s almost here, but that’s when we got hammered! I know you want to talk about 1977 and the captaincy, but let’s stick with 1969 for a moment.’
We should, because that 1969 match has its place in history, both for the bickering and the iconic moment of sportsmanship at the end. The latter, of course, stems from Jack Nicklaus’ concession of a 30-foot putt on the 18th of the final singles against Tony Jacklin. By halving the gap, the Cup ended in a draw.
Huggett chuckles. ‘There were Americans on that team who were not happy about that; they didn’t want to play evenly. I don’t think Sam Snead was excited.”
Huggett’s place in that drama is less well documented. Playing against three-time major winner Billy Casper, a few holes ahead of Nicklaus-Jacklin, it became clear that those two matches would determine whether Britain would win the Cup for the first time since 1957.
Ryder Cup 1969 team (top row left to right) 1 Christy O’Connor, 2 Peter Alliss, 3 Bernard Hunt, 4 Brian Barnes, 5 Peter Butler, 6 Neil Coles, (bottom row left to right) 7 Maurice Bembridge , 8 Peter Townsend, 9 Tony Jacklin, 10 Eric Brown, 11 Bernard Gallacher, 12 Brian Huggett and 13 Alex Caygill at Royal Birkdale
“I was on the 18th, so right before the other game, and I heard a huge roar,” Huggett says. “It sounded like a victory roar, so I assumed Jacko had turned Jack away. But he hadn’t done that: he had pierced an eagle hole to level it. Not knowing that, I stood over four and a half feet thinking I could win the Ryder Cup.
“I rolled it in and then I broke down and cried. Only then was I told it was still going on behind us!’ The Ryder Cup pumps through this old boy’s veins. He knows what it’s like to beat Palmer and Nicklaus twice apiece – ‘unfortunately not in singles!’ – and in 1977 he lived in the captain’s oven. “It wasn’t a full-time job then like it is now, but it meant so much,” he says.
It was Huggett who gave Sir Nick Faldo his debut. “I get a call in my room at 6:30 in the morning and it’s Nick,” he says. ‘He tells me he doesn’t feel well at all. “I said, ‘Well, it’s your first Ryder Cup, it’s the nerves.’ He shook it off.”
He did – Faldo won three out of three points, not that Huggett is the sort who has ever become fashionable for motivational talks from decorated guests. Captains have drafted George W. Bush and Sir Alex Ferguson. “You don’t need someone to do that,” Huggett says. “If you can’t play in the Ryder Cup, then you shouldn’t be on the team.”
It remains in his mind how he gave a choice to his good friend Jacklin, the winner of two majors but far out of form. Jacklin had a rough week and Huggett dropped him from singles. “I don’t think we really spoke to each other again until the 2010 Ryder Cup,” he says.
Huggett played a role in the Ryder Cup switching to America against Europe
When he topped the European rankings in 1968, his season’s income was just £8,400
Perhaps Huggett’s greatest legacy lies in what he accomplished in a meeting room off the course. It was after the 1977 Cup, which ended in a 12.5-7.5 defeat to Great Britain and Ireland, that he traveled to Augusta with Peter Butler and Lord Derby to plot the future of an overly one-sided tournament .
“The Americans were discussing a match against a team from the ‘rest of the world,'” he says. ‘I was then able to be a bit more convincing and told them that it would have no identity, an washout. We proposed expanding it to Europe and that there could be magic in it.”
There was and is, especially now that so much golf is being lost in the chaos that has led to broken tours and greed.
“The Ryder Cup is bigger than anything else in golf,” he says. “It transcends the money and everything else. It is comparable to the Olympic Games and the World Cup.’
With that, Huggett stands up. He pulls out a small replica of the trophy he received for his captaincy from his bag and for a moment he can’t take his eyes off it. Then and now, some sporting events simply mean more.