Ryder Cup: mythical Ganton retains its magic

Ben Smith and Ray Nicholls visit the venue for the 1949 Ryder Cup and find that not only does it remain one of Britain’s elite courses but that it retains its sense of history 

Ganton Golf Club is an extraordinary place.

There is a stillness to it, a timeless elegance. It’s as if when you leave the busy main road that flanks it and turn down a long narrow drive you are transported to a place of calm and serenity. Even in the fierce and frequent winds that sweep through the Vale of Pickering, there’s a sense of peace here.

The 16th green at Ganton

Ganton dates back to 1891 when Tom Chisholm of St Andrews created a layout that has hosted every major event an inland links course can.

That said, this is not a place where anyone shouts too loudly about anything. Understated class is the order of the day. As we turn left into the club, we pass the 18th green, with putting green close-by, to our left and the clubhouse to our right. The vast practice ground is a pitch from the 1st tee.

Ganton from above. Bottom right is the par 5, 9th.

We walk into the pro-shop where the highly-respected head pro Gary Brown welcomes us warmly as any visitor could wish to be greeted.

Conversation turns to the story that dominated the build-up to the ’49 Ryder Cup. That particular story was not about golf, but meat. It prompted the great Ben Hogan, America’s non-playing captain, to say, “every time I pick up a paper I read about meat. I can’t even find any golf news. Next time I guess we’ll leave our clubs and home and just have a meat show.”

The US Ryder Cup team, 1949. Captain Ben Hogan is in the centre.

At that time, post-war Britain was in the grip of rationing. Limits, introduced on Jan 8, 1940, had been imposed on the sale of meat, clothing, petrol and flour. Bartering for extra food outside shops was a way of life. Restrictions were gradually lifted as the years went on but by the time the Americans arrived, only flour and clothes were no longer rationed.

Hogan had become aware of the shortage as he recovered from the crash that almost cost him his life. Only months before the Ryder Cup, the man with a swing from the Gods had survived a head-on collision with a bus on a foggy February night in Texas. In throwing himself across his wife Valerie to protect her, Hogan had suffered a double-fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collarbone and left ankle, chipped ribs and blood clots. A surgeon was flown from New Orleans by an US Air Force plane to save his life.

Hogan was furious with the British press

From his hospital bed, Hogan prepared meticulously. He recruited an esteemed New York butcher to put 600 sirloin steaks, 12 sides of ribs, 12 hams and 12 boxes of bacon on board RMS Queen Elizabeth bound for Britain. The Americans, who travelled with their wives, were to spend a month in England, not only to prepare fully for the Ryder Cup at Ganton but to play in the British Masters at St Andrews and the British PGA Matchplay at Walton Health, which boasted a winning cheque of £2,620

But, at first, it was the meat that made in the biggest headlines. Reporters explained to Hogan the influx of food in their tightly rationed islands warranted headlines. “Maybe so,” he replied. “But you don’t go around every day printing what Lord so and so had for lunch, or tea or dinner. I don’t get your angle. Those steaks and hams have been in your papers for 12 days now. We bought it over for our own table and to entertain the British golfers and their wives.”

If that was to be the first controversy of the 49′ Ryder Cup, it was not the last. Two years’ earlier at the 1947 Ryder Cup at Portland Golf Club, Hogan had been involved in a dispute over the depth of the grooves on his irons. On the last afternoon of practice, Henry Cotton, then British captain, had demanded the irons of Hogan and the American players be examined to see if they were legal. All passed inspection.

Hogan returned the favour at Ganton. Bernard Darwin, chairman of the R&A’s rules committee, was summoned from his pre-dinner bath, so the story goes, and agreed with Hogan, deciding that some irons did not conform to the rules leaving Ganton’s head pro, Jock Ballentine, to work through the night to file them down to a legal depth.

The 1st green at Ganton. The course was in immaculate condition

During our day at Ganton we learn very little on the course has changed since those days. It remains a golf course of the very highest quality: the best in Yorkshire, among the very best in Britain. The practice ground we warm up on was not there in ’49. The players fired balls down the 1st although with many of them playing 36-holes on practice days they may not have needed much more.

In 1949 the 12th was a par-3 as pictured above.

The only significant change in the layout comes on the 12th, which for us plays as an excellent short par-4, with dog legs to the right. in ’49 it was a par-3 to the corner of the dog leg. The impenetrable gorse which lines the fairways at Ganton these days and is a fantastic feature, had not been planted when the Ryder Cup was played. It was a more open course, more prone to the elements than even it is today.

The greens which are delightfully receptive to well struck shots during our round, were described as being ‘as hard as concrete’ during in ’49. The British players, more used to chip-and-runs, had the better of the opening day, only for the Yorkshire rain to come overnight, softening the greens and allowing the Americans to fly the ball at the flags on day two, as they came from behind to win 7-5.

The locker rooms at Ganton are unaltered from the days of Hogan

A few years ago, a couple arrived at the club with two golf balls. They were, they explained, related to a local man who had caddied for Snead in ’49. All the American players had used local men to carry their clubs. Snead, though, had rewarded his caddie with two Spalding golf balls after his 6&5 victory over Charlie Ward. The family had kept them for almost 60 years aware, perhaps, of their historical significance.

The charming locker rooms also remain unaltered. This is where Hogan and Sam Snead changed their shoes. You feel the hand of history as you do the same. It is impossible not to at Ganton, it’s in the air. And it endures.

Our day ends with a drink and a moment of quiet reflection in the clubhouse. Ganton is a special place and not only because of its storied history. The Ryder Cup is just one chapter of it, there is much more to learn and understand. It is, quite frankly, hard to sum up in writing but all you need to know is that it is a genuine privilege to play golf here.

If you ever get the chance don’t pass it up.

The clubhouse at Ganton

KEY FACTS
Phone Number:  01968 660970
Designers: Tom Chisholm, Robert Bird, James Braid, Alister MacKenzie, Harry Colt, John Henry Taylor, and Harry Vardon.
Green Fee Range: £130 to £55.
Length: Par 73 – 6739 Yards
Website: gantongolfclub.com

The scorecard for Ganton.
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