Cup captains assume new roles in hysteria generation
Old gentility is being ditched in favour of gossip and bust-ups, writes Paul Hayward
The Ryder Cup displays an amusingly split identity. It can't quite decide whether to be the war of the worlds or a transatlantic buddy-up.
For every Ian Poulter fist pump or American convoy of aggressively speeding buggies, there are a dozen friendship speeches and blazered podium rituals. Like a party drunk, the Ryder Cup wants to be your best friend one minute and then fight you the next.
In this agreeably divided atmosphere the golf itself always managed to blow away any gaucheness by the protagonists, such as Nick Faldo telling his audience at Valhalla in Kentucky, "See you in Wales -- and bring your waterproofs with you." Or Faldo, again, reciting the CVs of his children in a ceremonial address that would have made Alan Partridge cringe.
But what we see now is a cult of the captain so egregious that golf's great clash of the continents threatens to mutate into a major Premier League game, in which the managers assume adversarial positions and the press conference becomes the highest form of drama.
When the last running turned into the Faldo show many of us thought there had been a temporary elevation of the captain's role, but it seems we were wrong, because Colin Montgomerie and Corey Pavin are consuming newsprint at a rate that suggests the Ryder Cup really is now all about the contrived human sideshows which modern sport pretends to disdain but actually feeds off.
October's event at Celtic Manor in Wales has already ditched the old gentility convention in favour of spicy press conferences, bunker rage, spectacular bust-ups between captains and reporters and uncertainty over whether the world No 1 will be there to seek to improve his lamentable record in Ryder Cup golf, which requires the supreme individualist to apply himself to a socialist cause.
Pavin's altercation with the Golf Channel's Jim Gray is a rollicking good read. It began when Gray claimed Pavin had told him Tiger Woods would definitely be one of his four captain's picks in the event of Woods failing to make the team automatically. Pavin denied Gray's claim on Twitter and then repeated his assertion that no guarantee could be given to Woods in a press conference at Whistling Straits, calling Gray's account of their conversation "incorrect".
Then the fun started. Gray rounded on Pavin afterwards and shouted: "You're a liar. You're going down." This, it seems to me, is the point where the Ryder Cup ceased to be a Corinthian confrontation between men in slacks and started to be an episode of The Sopranos. Come to think of it, Tony Soprano and his clan wore slacks a lot, too, and they certainly told their enemies: "You're going down." Which they invariably did, often to the bottom of the Hudson River.
Pavin told reporters: "He [Gray] went nuts when he came in here, He said, 'You're going down,' then he turned around and walked away and I'm like, 'Down for what? You making stuff up?'"
According to some reports, Gray raised his finger to Pavin's face. The New York Daily News claimed: "Even Pavin's wife, Lisa, got involved. At one point, she called Gray a 'wuss'."
Montgomerie is said to have chuckled as Pavin was grilled in the preceding press conference but then endured his own stint on the barbecue when the questioning turned to his private life. Montgomerie batted away the questions but they may be aired again.
Strictly, Sergio Garcia committing GBH on a bunker at Whistling Straits has no bearing on the Ryder Cup's growing appetite for gossip and hysteria but it came only days after he had announced his non-availability for Celtic Manor. Garcia said he needed two months off, and while his tantrum in the sand demonstrated the accuracy of that diagnosis it also raises doubts about the Ryder Cup's importance to the modern player, because Garcia had appeared to be one its most passionate proponents.
As is Montgomerie, who played eight times and has never lost a singles match. Monty is an impresario's dream. With an eventful private life to entertain the popular prints, a deep appreciation of the Ryder Cup tradition and an emotional nature that snags itself on the stresses of golf, he was sent from the gods to keep Celtic Manor in melodrama.
The cult of the buggy-jockey is not entirely new, granted. Who could forget Generalissimo Ballesteros sweeping up to the greens at Valderrama in 1997 or the lubrication provided by Ian Woosnam at Kildare's K Club? Or, Paul Azinger referring to Faldo as a "prick" in a newspaper interview? More and more we see the captain assume the role of news generator and lightning rod for the kind of interest that requires conflict and prurience before the mind will engage.
The modern mind, in other words. And lest the charge of hypocrisy wing in, it should be said that Monty's cabaret, America agonising over Woods and the possibility that "you're going down" will be used again as a clubhouse threat will shift a lot of product in south Wales.