Before there was Ian Poulter there was Dai Rees, a Welshman whose passion for the Ryder Cup fueled often undermanned teams for four decades
Plenty are those of a (contemporary) European persuasion who will insist the inspirational figure of Ian Poulter is the ultimate “Mr. Ryder Cup.” And they would not be wrong, given the Englishman’s already legendary propensity for heroics in golf’s biggest biennial battle. But they would not be completely right, either. That tribute and unofficial title was originally given to another, a man who played in nine Ryder Cups, captained the then Great Britain & Ireland team on five occasions and was good enough to go head-to-head in singles with major champions Byron Nelson, Jay Hebert, Doug Ford and Ed Furgol — and beat all four.
Dai Rees has been gone for nearly 40 years, but his memory deserves recognition beyond reference in dusty history books. No one has ever displayed more enthusiasm for the Ryder Cup than the wee Welshman who was also three times a runner-up in the Open Championship. You had to be way better than good to beat him. All-time greats Ben Hogan (1953), Peter Thomson (1954) and Arnold Palmer (1961) were the men who most cruelly denied Rees his biggest lifetime ambition. Which is not to say that 1946 at St. Andrews, where he shot 80 in the final round when 74 would have won the claret jug, was not most painful.
Amid those lingering disappointments, Rees also did plenty of winning, his penchant for the rough and tumble of match-play obvious.
“My method in match play has been always simply to play against the course rather than against my opponent,” he wrote in his 1968 autobiography, Thirty Years of Championship Golf. “And to anticipate his performing great feats rather than hoping he will commit vast blunders. I have never minded losing a match, provided I have played well. If someone has outplayed me, he is welcome to victory. I always try to go boldly for the correct shot, rather than easing up and playing safely.”
It is a philosophy that worked well enough for long enough. Winner of the British Matchplay Championship on four occasions between 1936 and 1950, Rees remained good enough to reach the final in 1967 (where he lost to Thomson) and in 1969. He travelled well, too. In 1958, Rees won the South African Matchplay title, beating Harold Henning and Gary Player along the way.
He wasn’t too shabby with card and pencil in hand either. In 1973, one year after the establishment of the European Tour, Rees came close to adding to a cosmopolitan list of career victories that included the Irish Open, Swiss Open, Belgian Open, New South Wales Open, South African PGA and the PGA Seniors Championship when he was runner-up in the Martini International … at age 60. Throughout all of that commendable longevity, Rees was (in)famous amongst his peers as a man who never hit a poor shot. Any fault wasn’t his; always, some outside agency caused his misfortune, a feature of the Rees game that future Ryder Cupper Ken Brown saw up close during his European Tour debut at the 1975 Irish Open.
“I was 18; Dai was 62,” says Brown with a smile. “We were out early on the last day, the youngest player in the field and the oldest. I remember him as a ‘chirpy chappie,’ but highly competitive. I instantly picked up that he was determined to beat me. It was in his genes. On the first hole at Woodbrook, a par 5, we were both 130 yards or so from the putting surface after two shots. The green was a little elevated, so the approach was slightly uphill.
“He hit first. The pin was on the left side. But Dai pulled his shot. It landed on a slope just off the green and shot straight left. He looked at me incredulously. Did you see that bounce? he asked. I was laughing inside. The pin was left. He pulled the shot. It landed on a big right-to-left slope and kicked left. What did he expect? He had hit an awful shot that was only ever going produce one result.”
Still, for all his seemingly inexhaustible competitiveness on tour, it was for the Ryder Cup that Rees was best known. The now 67-year-old BBC Sports Personality of the Year award isn’t quite what it once was, but it remains an indication of where the nation’s interests lie. In 1957, the year Rees captained GB&I to what would be its last Ryder Cup victory, he won the public vote and remains the only golfer to have done so.
If Rees was a bonafide star, the starting point for that level of acclaim was that ’57 Ryder Cup victory at Lindrick. It was, by a distance, the high point of Rees’ 30-year direct association with the matches. Given that every other encounter was lost (often with something to spare) that is hardly surprising. But even in heavy defeat, Rees often stood out. His sound technique, based on a two-handed baseball grip, was built to last. (His nine appearances for GB&I would have been 10 but for the intrusion of World War II).
“Dai had a tremendous all-round game, and it was hard to find any weaknesses,” says Brian Huggett, the last man to captain a GB&I Ryder Cup team. “His best department was the fairway woods, which is why I think he did so well on British links courses. He would hit the green eight times out of ten with his 3- or 4-wood.”
In passing, driving of another sort was a memorable part of the six-year gap in (corporal) Rees’ golfing life during WWII. Serving in the Royal Air Force, he saw active service in North Africa and the Middle East before landing the job of personal driver to Air Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst, a senior RAF commander. In that role, Rees also drove Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (commander of Allied Ground Forces on D-Day), British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and an American General by the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On separate occasions, Rees also played golf with Montgomery and King George VI, at Eindhoven in Holland. His game with the former was interrupted on the sixth green when an aide arrived to tell the Field Marshal that the Germans had launched their last big counterattack of the war, what would lead to the Battle of the Bulge. As Rees recalled, Monty reacted to the news by calmly holing an eight-foot putt for par.