The rival captains will hold the key to next weekend's Ryder Cup extravaganza, says Dermot Gilleece
When the Ryder Cup was heading for Kiawah Island in 1991, NBC bought the television rights for just under $2m and "took a pretty significant bath". Twenty-one years on, the American network is pleased to be paying close to 10 times that figure as the host broadcaster at Medinah later this week, in what amounts to a remarkable coming of age.
At the peak of the banking and sponsorship boom in the US in 2004, golf's ultimate cash cow generated profits of $70m at Oakland Hills, which was about 50 per cent higher than the Masters or the US Open. And on this side of the Atlantic, the considerable revenue from a four-year deal with Sky, which is soon to expire, makes it the European Tour's primary source of income.
Obviously, the Tour's bigger haul comes from European stagings where they take 60 per cent of the profits while the remainder is split between the British PGA and the corresponding organisations on the Continent. Which represents quite a contrast to decidedly lean times when the event was a financial basket case until the tide turned with a £300,000 profit from the first European victory at The Belfry in 1985.
Why so much concentration on cash, you may ask. Because that is essentially what the Ryder Cup is about. Apart from sponsoring several tournaments, Ireland delivered a £50m bonanza at The K Club in 2006, and the Welsh were similarly obliging at Celtic Manor two years ago. And at the end of it all, the 24 players each receive a six-figure cash award to be donated to their favourite charity. On the other hand, the respective captains of recent decades have turned it into a really nice little earner, believed to be worth about €2m each to Jose Maria Olazabal and Davis Love this time around. By comparison, the most influential captain of them all, Tony Jacklin, received a reported £50,000 and a crate of whisky.
Almost despite itself, the event has developed into arguably the most riveting three-day television spectacle in sport, capable of producing unrivalled climactic thrills on the Sunday. And there will be bumper helpings on this occasion with Sky screening 12 hours from 12.30pm on Friday and Saturday and more than eight hours of singles starting at 4pm next Sunday.
In his latest book Out of Bounds, Sam Torrance, the victorious European skipper of 2002, describes the Ryder Cup somewhat expansively as "the greatest sporting contest in the world". More importantly, the Scot notes that a sense of humour is essential if players are to cope with the stress of battle. As in his remark to fourball partner, David Feherty, whose first putt from 15 feet at Kiawah, finished three feet short and four feet wide of the target.
"If you don't get your act together," Torrance warned, "I'm leaving you, joining them (Lanny Wadkins and Mark O'Meara) and you can play all three of us, you useless bastard." From this unpromising beginning, the long-time friends went on to grind out a very creditable half.
Appropriately, the event has a rather special trophy about four inches taller than a Hollywood Oscar and a lot more valuable. Crafted in 1926 by the Sheffield firm of James Dixon and Son at a cost of 400 guineas (€612.19), the Ryder Cup is a nine-carat gold chalice standing 17 inches. As a unique adornment, the lid carries a sculpted image of Abe Mitchell, a leading British professional of the period and, more significantly, Samuel Ryder's personal golf coach.
Though European Tour officials smile coyly when asked how many copies of the trophy are in existence, my information is that there are at least three, making four Ryder Cups in all. Apart from the original, there is the one donated by Ryder to a fishing club in St Albans and another which he left to the Umtali Golf Club in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he often went on holiday. Then there is the copy which one-time sponsors, Johnnie Walker, are reputed to have had made for advertising purposes.
Starting with Fred Daly in 1949, Ireland has contributed a total of 19 representatives, including Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, who were both automatic choices for this week's European line-up. As it happens, it is only the second time in recent years that this island's representation has been limited to two, the other occasion being Valhalla in 2008, when McDowell and Pádraig Harrington were in action.
In terms of current form, Olazabal couldn't wish for better than the inspirational figure of McIlroy as world No 1. He will also have noted, however, that all 12 American team members qualified for the Tour Championship which decides the FexEx Cup at East Lake, Atlanta this weekend, whereas the 30-man field includes only five of the European team -- McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald and Justin Rose. Granted, several of the others are not members of the PGA Tour, but the composition of the field could still be interpreted as a significant pointer.
My belief, however, is that the captains hold the key to victory. Where the street-fighting qualities of Dave Stockton and Paul Azinger delivered American successes on home soil in 1991 and 2008, Love is cast from a very different mould. He's essentially a mild-mannered, decent man who compiled an impressive record of 20 tournament victories, including the 1997 PGA Championship, largely out of formidable golfing talent rather than competitive steel.
A Ryder Cup playing record of only nine wins from 26 matches between 1993 and 2004 tells its own tale. And during that period, he figured in only two winning American teams, in 1993 and 1999. Olazabal, on the other hand, shared in three European triumphs and a tie between 1987 and his swansong at The K Club in 2006. And from 31 matches, he won 18 and halved five.
In terms of his four wild cards, the American's reliance on Jim Furyk, as an old and trusted friend, could come back to haunt him. Images are still fresh of Furyk's short-game frailty under pressure at the US Open in June and again in the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone last month. Though he may not yet be seeing the mad dog behind the hole, he no longer inspires confidence over tricky three- and four-footers.
Meanwhile, McDowell retains warm memories of Olazabal's stirring if unavailing speech to the troops on the Saturday night at Valhalla four years ago. "I can't wait to be in a team with Jose as my captain," said the hero of Celtic Manor. And apart from passion, one can imagine the competitive guile the Spaniard would have observed and stored away during 15 Ryder Cup matches as a partner to an indomitable icon. "When Seve gets his Porsche going," he once remarked, "not even San Pedro in heaven can stop him."
Olazabal will also have the benefit of a widely-experienced and broadly-based back-room team of Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Miguel Angel Jimenez. As he said himself, they come from very different points of the golfing spectrum and will have the ability to pick up and interpret every nuance from the 12 European team members.
But Love also has advantages. As far back as 1994, he was number one in driving distance on the PGA Tour with average launches of 283.8 yards. So he is acutely aware of the value of length, which he will exploit to maximum effect from such acknowledged bombers as Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
It has emerged that the US skipper has requested the lightest rough ever witnessed for a major event at Medinah, while semi-rough extends for 10 yards before the deeper variety is reached. Given that the overall length of the remodelled course is 7,668 yards, against 7,561 for the 2006 PGA Championship, the message is clear.
Interestingly, changes by architect Rees Jones include a new, driveable par-four 15th (391 yards off the back), similar to the corresponding hole at Celtic Manor (377 yds). Jones apparently drew inspiration for this from seeing Ballesteros drive the par-four 10th at The Belfry during Ryder Cups in the 1980s. The three remaining holes destined to form the business end of the 28 matches are two strong par fours on either side of a 193-yard par three.
Yet amid all the talk of length, Jones is of the view that the set-up at Medinah is unlikely to be much longer than 7,200 yards, with two of the longer par fives being trimmed so as to promote two-shot gambles. Either way, Europe also have their bombers in McIlroy, Westwood and rookie Nicolas Colsaerts.
Though the greens will be seriously quick, a lot slicker than is normal in Europe, success in this crucial area generally has more to do with attitude than technique. As in the ability to replace the well-honed conservatism of regular tournament play with the raw aggression of death-or-glory matchplay.
The Detroit News once observed that the format of the Ryder Cup was devised "by somebody with a shrewd sense of the sadistic". Further spice will be added to the European challenge by a backdrop of naked hostility from well-fuelled Chicago sportsfans whose simple requirement will be to see the U-S-A kick some European butt. And hang the niceties of a gentleman's game.
Yet for all its biennial brazenness, we will be unable to drag ourselves away.