ST ALBANS England (Reuters) - An imposing oil portrait of one Samuel Ryder adorns a wall in Verulam Golf Club’s oak-panelled bar, just in front of a panoramic window overlooking the 18th hole named after him.
The 109-year-old James Braid-designed course, just north of London in Hertfordshire, is dotted with members and societies enjoying a leisurely round in balmy September sunshine.
It’s a tranquil scene -- a world away from the maelstrom that will engulf Gleneagles in a few days, as the Ryder Cup begins in front of thousands of spectators lining the course and millions of TV viewers watching the world’s top golfers engage in three days of golfing combat.
Quite what Ryder, who made a fortune with a packet seed business in the leafy town of St Albans (once the Roman stronghold of Verulamium), would have thought one can only imagine. But thanks to his ground-breaking idea of a golfing match between Britain and America’s finest players, one of sport’s most eagerly-anticipated spectacles has grown.
When the winning point is scored in the 40th edition on Sunday Sept. 28, whether for holders Europe or the visiting Americans, caps should be doffed to the visionary who made it all possible.
The Verulam Club, tucked away off the main road into St Albans next to an industrial estate and adjacent to the railway line heading north, is proud of old Sam, as is the city of which he became Mayor in 1905.
The Samuel Ryder Foundation is raising money to have a statue erected in his honor in the city center, while the local tourist office advertises the Sam Ryder Trail, a walk taking in the art-deco building that was once his seed hall, his office which now forms part of the Clarion Hotel, and his final resting place at the Hatfield Road cemetery.
In the St Albans Museum, a small section is devoted to the life of Ryder, from the Ryder and Son seed company that grew and grew, his many charitable deeds and above all his passion for helping aspiring golfers make a living.
One local school, formerly named after 17th century philosopher Francis Bacon, is now the Samuel Ryder Academy.
“His footprint is all over the town,” David Holwell, who runs the Foundation and is striving to have Ryder inducted into the PGA of America Hall of Fame in Florida, told Reuters.
“But considering what he did here I think he has been slowly forgotten down the years.”
At a recent fund-raising dinner in St Albans former European Ryder Cup captain Tony Jacklin lauded the legacy of Ryder while the European PGA donated 25,000 pounds (40,780 US dollar) for the statue.
The Verulam Club, at which he was captain in 1911 -- just two years after taking up the sport, aged 49 -- 1926 and 1927, is also part of the Ryder trail and contains many reminders of a man who played his part in dragging golf into the modern era.
The captain’s chair he donated, and sat in, takes pride of place in the lounge bar, while one of his old wooden putters rests in a glass cabinet on the wall.
One black and white photo from 1927 shows Ryder proudly holding the trophy he had commissioned by the now-royal jewelers Mappin and Webb, alongside the first British team to contest the Ryder Cup.
Driving through the gates, a sign welcomes you to “The Home of the Ryder Cup” - a boast the club defends fiercely despite counter claims from at least two others.
“There are two other clubs that lay claim but we have registered the name,” club manager Robin Farrah, who hails from Liverpool, not far from where Ryder grew up, says.
Two weeks before the real Ryder Cup the club hosts it’s own version -- a 36-hole competition for club members with a replica Ryder Cup trophy for the winners.
So how did a man whose business was helping working class folk grow carrots, onions and cucumbers in their yards, and did not swing a golf club until nearly 50, give his name to a competition now regarded as the most famous in golf?
It began for health reasons.
The minister at his local church advised the over-worked Ryder needed more fresh air and suggested he take up golf.
Ryder joined the Verulam Club, formed in 1905, and was soon hooked. Thanks to lessons from local players, sometimes in the garden of his nearby house, his game improved rapidly.
A few years later he recruited big hitter Abe Mitchell as his private coach and made him Verulam’s resident professional.
Mitchell’s presence is still felt at the club, as the man who now occupies the captain’s chair told.
A member for 36 years, current captain John Wells described the playing-in ceremony on becoming captain -- hitting three shots with a wooden club once owned by the big-hitting Mitchell, in between shots of whisky.
“I‘m left-handed and it’s a right-handed club. But thankfully I managed it after a few lessons,” Wells told Reuters. “To follow in the footsteps of a man like Samuel Ryder is like a lifetime’s ambition fulfilled.”
Perhaps as a mark of Ryder’s gratitude, Mitchell is also the small figure on top of the Ryder Cup trophy.
Well-known for his concern for the poor and social welfare -- his seed business was ahead of its time in its treatment of staff -- Ryder became aware of a great disparity between talented British golfers and their well-heeled American counterparts.
In the 1920s when golf was still a rich man’s pastime, Ryder began organizing ‘professional’ competitions, the first of which in 1923 was known as the Heath and Heather tournament, after the company he set up to sell herbal remedies with his brother and later became Holland and Barrett.
That one attracted six Open champions but Ryder had even grander plans.
While playing at the Came Down Club in Dorset, talented club pro Ernest Whitcombe is said to have told Ryder that he could not afford to play in the British Open.
“The Americans come over here smartly dressed and backed by wealthy supporters, the Britisher has a poor chance compared to that,” he apparently said.
The comment touched a nerve and, in 1926 Ryder ordered a new gold trophy for a match between the top British and Americans to be held at Wentworth.
It was not the first official Ryder Cup as the American team contained some “guests” but a year later, a team set sail for the inaugural competition in Worcester, Massachusetts -- the Americans winning with ease.
Ryder would only witness five matches before his death in 1936 but his legacy lives on.
“He was a very clever man and I imagine he would have been amazed to see what his competition has evolved into,” Farrah said. “He never smiled much in the photos we have of him, but I think he would be pleased with how things have turned out.”
The Verulam Golf Club will be packed next week as members watch on television as the likes of Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler do battle and, whatever the outcome, glasses will be raised in the direction of the man staring down from the walls.
(1 US dollar = 0.6130 British pound)
Reporting by Martyn Herman