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Well-researched and timely account of an historic Ryder Cup match

Neil Sagebiel’s account of the historic 1969 Ryder Cup matches at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in England is a masterful account of one of the most important international golf matches of the 20th century.
cover image courtesy St. Martin’s Press

‘Draw in the Dunes’, by Neil Sagebiel

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With the 40th contesting of the Ryder Cup—the biennial golf competition between teams of top professional golfers from the United States and Europe (until 1979, the United States and Great Britain)—coming up September 23–28, the thoughts of the golf world are turning toward Gleneagles, in Perthshire, Scotland—the site of the 2014 matches—and golf fans with an historical bent are looking back to the significant matches of the past.

In recent years the Ryder Cup has become a semi-raucous display of nationalism and jingoistic partisanism, but that hasn’t always been the case. Though there were some instances of friction in past Ryder Cups—for instance in 1967, when USA team captain Ben Hogan introduced his team at the pre-match dinner by saying simply, “Ladies and gentlemen, the United States Ryder Cup team: the finest golfers in the world.” a statement that was not well received by the overseas press and fans, the early history of the matches was largely one of sportsmanship and calm.

Things began to change in the last couple of decades of the 20th century, however, and from the infamous “War by the Shore” at Kiawah Island in 1991 to the most recent competition, 2012’s “Miracle at Medinah” (or “Meltdown at Medinah”, from the USA fan’s point of view), the level of rancor and tension in the matches has been rising steadily. With that background to the run-up to the upcoming matches, this is perhaps a good time to look back at one of the most famous instances of sportsmanship in the long history of this iconic competition—Jack Nicklaus’ conceded putt that led to the first tie in Ryder Cup history, in the 1969 Ryder Cup which has come to be known as the “Draw in the Dunes”.

Luckily for golf fans everywhere, that historic Ryder Cup competition has been brought to life in the new book by Neil Sagebiel, Draw in the Dunes, which will be released September 9, 2014, just two weeks before the 2014 Ryder Cup matches begin.

Sagebiel’s first book, The Longest Shot, chronicled the unlikely victory of a little-known golf pro from Iowa, Jack Fleck, over a giant of the game, multiple-major winner Ben Hogan, at the 1955 United States Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. The Longest Shot drew well-deserved plaudits from reviewers and readers alike, becoming an instant classic of golf history. With Draw in the Dunes, Sagebiel has brought the same deft touch to the story of the 1969 Ryder Cup matches at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in England.

The 1969 matches began in an atmosphere of strife, when combative GB team captain Eric Brown instructed his team not to assist in the search for balls hit into the rough by American players. Ostensibly a move to avoid a penalty were one of the GB team’s players to step on an American golf ball during the search (which actually would not have been a penalty), the declaration was interpreted by the American team, press, and fans as an act of hostility.

The matches were marked by elevated tensions, much of which can be laid at the feet of the volatile and eccentric Ken Still, one of ten Ryder Cup rookies on the American squad. The hostile feelings came to a boil in the Friday afternoon fourball match that pitted Still and fellow American Dave Hill against Great Britain’s Brian Huggett and Bernard Gallacher. Going into Saturday’s singles matches it would take a singular, and unique act of sportsmanship on the part of Jack Nicklaus to restore the good feelings that were supposed to be the hallmark of the competition.

Nicklaus was playing the 1969 British Open champion Tony Jacklin head-to-head for the second time that day, and the outcome of the competition, which was tied to that point, was hanging in the balance. Coming to the final hole all square, Nicklaus conceded a two-foot putt to his opponent, tying the match and bringing about the first tie in the history of the Ryder Cup competition.

The tie meant that the Cup stayed with the United States, but it was a peace pipe that soothed British feelings, which had been hurt by the events of the previous two days, and prevented the United States from stretching their victory run to six straight Ryder Cups, and 13 of the last 14 competitions—a lopsided history that was a sore point for the British side.

In Draw in the Dunes, Neil Sagebiel has once again brought a significant moment in golf history to life, combining the results of exhaustive research and extensive interviews with his prodigious storytelling talent to paint a complete and very satisfying portrait of a complex series of events. In his skillful hands the events and personalities that comprise the story step off the page in a lively manner, and as he did in The Longest Shot, Sagebiel manages to keep the reader engrossed in events the outcome of which they are probably already quite familiar with.

The timely publishing of this authoritative and entertaining work, two months after the British Open returned to Royal Birkdale Golf Club, the venue where the 1969 Ryder Cup was contested, and two weeks before the 2014 Ryder Cup begins, is a gift to golf fans on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. I recommend it highly.

Draw in the Dunes is available for pre-order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, IndieBound, Powells and other booksellers.