Thursday, September 30, 1999

Ryder Cup fell prey to new norm

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In the interests of a kinder, gentler Ryder Cup, we will refrain from taunting our European colleagues today.

        But in the interest of accuracy, we should correct an unfortunate assertion by Mr. Martin Johnson of the Daily Telegraph. The British scribe, offended by the inadequate decorum of American golfers and fans, observed that most of us are so insular that we still believe the Second World War was won by John Wayne.

        This is obviously untrue. Most Americans recognize that World War II was won primarily through the efforts of George C. Scott and Robert Mitchum. John Wayne, by comparison, was no more than a supporting actor.

        What any of this has to do with golf is unclear but not inconsistent, for the Ryder Cup is only tangentially about golf. Mostly, it is about jingoism and gin — alcohol-fueled patriotism that allows spectators to demonstrate their love of country and their contempt for foreigners. In this respect, the biennial competition is strikingly similar to most other international sports.

        Field hockey is a blood sport when India and Pakistan play. Soccer riots remain a global phenomenon, even in pious old England. Golf ceases to be a game of grace and gentility when the players represent nations instead of corporations.

        American players understood this at least two years ago, when the Ryder Cup was staged in Valderrama, Spain. Since the world seems to grow more vulgar by the hour, the discourteous conduct that detracted from last weekend's competition at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., was both lamentable and predictable.

"Embarrassed for golf'
        European captain Mark James said a fan spit at his wife. Colin Montgomerie said his father left the course rather than witness any more of the abuse being heaped on his son. American Payne Stewart, matched against Montgomerie on Sunday, said he was “disgusted” by the behavior of some spectators. Some Europeans are talking about a boycott, and James said he fears fistfights in the future.

        “I felt embarrassed for golf,” said Michael Bonallack, secretary of the Royal and Ancient in St.Andrews, Scotland. “I love the Ryder Cup and I don't want to see it degenerate into a mob demonstration every time we play it.”

        Ideally, the Ryder Cup would be played to the discreet applause of a gracious gallery. Pragmatically, the event has grown too big to screen spectators effectively. Mark James suggested a ban on alcohol, but in his next breath conceded that this was probably a doomed initiative. Printed spectator instructions were vigorously ignored last weekend.

        “There should be no excessive partisanship,” the instructions said. “While all good shotmaking should be applauded, the prospective misfortunes of an opposing player should never be celebrated.”

        Part of the price golf pays to appeal to a wider audience is that some of the casual spectators may not always behave by the book. This is a price, it should be noted, that golf has been pretty willing to pay.

Profit and passion
        The 1999 Ryder Cup netted about $20 million in profits and a priceless amount of television exposure. Mainstream sports fans normally indifferent to the weekly PGA Tour stops found themselves with an intense rooting interest. When Justin Leonard drained that 45-foot putt on No.17 Sunday, he was no longer another tailored gypsy traipsing from tournament to tournament but an authentic American hero.

        That his teammates responded to the putt by racing across the putting line of Jose Maria Olazabal was a clear lapse in etiquette. But it was also evidence of the raw emotion no other golf event engenders.

        The power of the Ryder Cup is in the passion of its participants, playing for something larger than themselves.

        Two questions: 1) What golfer of any citizenship would not gladly endure some spectator abuse for an opportunity like Leonard's? 2) What chance is there of a European boycott when the Ryder Cup returns to these shores?

        Answers: None and none.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail. Message him at


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