Did you know – Ryder Cup has connection to Iowa, Wakonda Club

Zach Johnson (pictured above) will be carrying the flag for the United States, as well as his home state of Iowa, as captain of the United States team at the Ryder Cup this weekend in Rome, Italy.

A native of Cedar Rapids and member of the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame, a five-time Ryder Cup player and two-time major champion, Johnson hopes to experience winning the Ryder Cup as a player and captain.

There’s an Iowa connection to that Ryder Cup trophy. It’s a story that starts in 1922, when the Wakonda Club in Des Moines hosted an exhibition to show off its new golf course. Two of Great Britain’s best players, George Duncan and Abe Mitchell, played a match against Wakonda pro Jack Welsh and James Hubbell of Des Moines, the 1916 NCAA champion from Harvard.

Tickets were $1 “to help defray the expense of bringing the star golfers here,” the Des Moines Register reported.

Duncan, the 1920 Open Champion, and Mitchell beat Welsh and Hubbell, 3 and 1. Duncan was medalist with a 75.

“Both Duncan and Mitchell stated that (Wakonda) is a real test of golf throughout,” the Register reported.

American Walter Hagen played Wakonda in an exhibition shortly after Duncan and Mitchell’s appearance, and also shot 75. Hagen’s round was considered the course record because Duncan hadn’t putted out on every hole.

A dozen years before Mitchell came to Des Moines, he was hired by Samuel Ryder to be his personal golf instructor. Ryder, a seed merchant and workaholic, was advised by his doctor to take up the game after he had fallen ill. With Mitchell offering a helping hand, Ryder became obsessed with the game and soon had a single-digit handicap.

According to “Draw in the Dunes,” Neil Sabebiel’s book on the 1969 Ryder Cup, Ryder had witnessed a friendly match between teams of American and British stars in 1926. The Americans, including Hagen and Tommy Armour, were there to play in the Open championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes.

The British team, which included Duncan and Mitchell, easily won that 1926 match. Ryder wondered why a competition like this could not take place in the future. Over tea, Ryder, Duncan, Mitchell, Hagen and others put together a plan to make it happen.

They decided to call it the Ryder Cup since Samuel Ryder donated the money to pay for the trophy.On top of the gold chalice is a likeness of Mitchell, Ryder’s way of saying thanks for his personal instruction.

“Putting me on top of the cup is more distinction than I could ever earn,” Mitchell said.

The inaugural Ryder Cup was contested on June 3-4, 1927, at Worchester Country Club in Worchester, Mass.

Both Mitchell and Duncan played on three Ryder Cup teams. Duncan was a player-captain in 1929, when his team won.

Many years later, Johnson played the Wakonda Club many times as a member of Drake’s golf team. And now he’d like to bring that Ryder Cup trophy, Mitchell’s likeness included, back with him to the United States.

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