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Ryder Cup: Sam Ryder selected Abe Mitchell to be the person atop the trophy.

The beginning of Abe Mitchell’s life was not the best.

However, the Mary’s illegitimate son, who was born in a workhouse in East Grinstead, Victorian England, would go on to become one of the highest-paid athletes of his day and eventually become known as the one who stands atop the Ryder Cup.

The ‘Cantelupe Crack’s’ tale is a real-life example of rags to riches.

When he was younger, he made his own clubs out of branches cut from trees to strike balls he discovered in the underbrush. After winning his first important championship in 1910, he was derided as an amateur golfer and a “workman” invading a gentleman’s sport.

He participated in World War One on the front lines and afterwards had anxiety while taking the course. He ended up being known as the “greatest player to never win The Open” by five-time champion JH Taylor, but sadly he would never claim a major.

When Mitchell, who was born in January 1887, was three years old, he accidentally stumbled across the fairways of Royal Ashdown Forest, a golf course that had just been established and was still in its infancy.

Not everyone enjoyed the course, which was carved out of common land owned by the seventh Earl De La Warr on the outskirts of the East Sussex community of Forest Row. It drew walkers who wouldn’t cede their right of way, and smallholders would ruin the greens.

The golf club’s far wealthier members unanimously decided to attempt to win over these commoners in order to mediate peace. The Viscount Cantelupe Club, named after the Earl’s son, was established as a result in 1892.

It is currently the oldest artisan section still in existence in England. Cantelupe’s current captain, Max Pearson, told BBC Sport that the club was once only open to locals who lived within a five-mile radius of the village, though today that radius is closer to the church spire.

The artists were hired as the inaugural greenstaff and given free rounds of golf as compensation.

It was ideal for Mitchell and his family because their financial situation would have barred them from playing on their neighborhood course. He was one of four brothers, seven cousins, and uncles who began as Cantelupe members and all went on to become experts in the greenkeeping industry.

Colin Strachan, a member of Royal Ashdown Forest since 1978 and author of the book Fair Ways in Ashdown Forest, which chronicles the club’s illustrious history, claims that “they could turn out a team of Mitchells and slaughter Oxford or Cambridge university teams.”

By the time he was eight years old, Abe was making his own clubs out of beech tree branches to smash balls he discovered on the course.

By the time he was 12 years old, he was playing and abusing adults.

According to Pearson, in the yearly matches that paired the craftsmen against the members of the club, Mitchell was “recommended to the England team to face Scotland by AG Hutchinson, a man he had beaten four times.”

Golf Illustrated referred to Mitchell’s selection as “the advent of the working man of the ancient and honorable calling of gardener” and stated that Hutchinson would lose his position in the side as a result. The article also sniffed that “the cream of gentleman golfers, and Abe Mitchell” played in the competition.

As his reputation in the sport grew, he would further disprove his detractors by capturing the renowned Golf Illustrated Gold Vase at Sunningdale that same year and again in 1913 at Walton Heath.

Again being mocking in its article, Golf Illustrated called Mitchell “a gardener from a working man’s golf society with playing rights at Royal Ashdown” and claimed to have “never seen a workman play before.”

“Golf is the game of classes in England, and it is my fair conviction that artisans are not wanted,” Mitchell said as a result.

Photograph of Abe Mitchell taken in 1910
Mitchell, who would place second in 1912, was 23 when he made it to the semifinals of the 1910 Amateur Championship, which was second in importance only to The Open.
But Sir Abe Bailey, a South African diamond dealer and ardent sports fan, who was instrumental in the creation of the International Cricket Council, had become aware of him as a result of his accomplishments.

Bailey, who has a sizable home that overlooks Forest Row, had been closely monitoring Mitchell’s development. He received a retainer for his services as his playing partner, so he could profit from winning bets while simultaneously using him as his chauffeur and gardener.

In June 1914, Mitchell achieved his joint-highest placing at an Open Championship when he tied for fourth at Prestwick as the legendary Harry Vardon won the game’s first major for a record-breaking sixth time.

But his career was sadly cut short when World War One broke out the following month.

According to Strachan, “Abe spent much of the war on the front lines in northern France, pulling horses that in turn were pulling enormous guns through the mud.”

“Golf courses were converted into trenches as a means of preparing soldiers for the Somme, and Royal Ashdown still bears witness to this.

“Soldier training typically lasted for two weeks, during which time everyone attended church on Sunday before being loaded into cattle vehicles. The entire Forest Row village would gather to watch them go away from the club and down the hill.

“Abe was one of the fortunate ones to survive. He was as strong as an ox.”

Mitchell, who was known for having some of the longest and straightest drives, jumped out to a six-shot lead after the first two rounds of the 1920 Open at Royal Cinque Ports in Kent.

He struggled in the third round the following morning, shooting an 84 as his advantage dissipated, and ultimately placed fourth, four strokes behind Scotland’s George Duncan.

But his friendship with Duncan would pay off. The two traveled quickly around the US and Canada in 1922, earning at least $25,000 apiece, or roughly £370,000 in today’s money.

Although the details of the journey’s duration are somewhat hazy, Strachan estimates that it would have taken about three months.

“They were playing for literally shedloads of money,” he said. They would fit in 84 rounds by playing two rounds each day, traveling from Florida in the south to Winnipeg in the north while stopping in Kansas, Milwaukee, and New York along the way.

“They won 51 of the matches, dropping a few to the great Walter Hagen (11 major titles), and a few to the up-and-coming Gene Sarazen (seven major titles).

They returned in 1925 with Hagen as their supporter, receiving $25,000 each this time, and they undoubtedly added to that sum by winning wagers on sporting events.

By this time, Mitchell had already met wealthy seed dealer Samuel Ryder, who would later found the transatlantic tournament that carries his name.

Ryder, who started playing golf at the age of 50 after being advised by a doctor to get more exercise and fresh air, lived in St. Albans, a city to the north of London.

He joined the city’s Verulam Golf Club and sponsored golf events, which is how he met Mitchell and hired him as his personal coach. He paid Mitchell £500 year in compensation as well as his tournament entry fees.

Mitchell was scheduled to compete in the first Ryder Cup in 1927 at the Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts, but according to accounts at the time, he was unable to travel because of an appendicitis attack.

This is false, according to Strachan, who asserts: “I believe it was a manifestation of his anxiety that stopped him from traveling.”

Mitchell would go on to participate in the following three Ryder Cups, aiding Great Britain in its victories against the US in 1929 at Moortown in Leeds and 1933 at Southport & Ainsdale.

Ryder gave the teams the 17-inch high gold trophy, and as a way of saying thanks to Mitchell for teaching him the game, he had a statue of his mentor put on top.

I owe golf a lot, Mitchell admitted. “What you have done, putting me at the top of the cup, is more distinction than I could ever earn.”


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