| 13.7°C Dublin

Daring and passion of Continentals adds spice to mix

The expansion of the Ryder Cup didn't suit everyone's taste, recalls Dermot Gilleece

In the wake of the latest humiliation for the home side at Royal Lytham in 1977, distinguished British golf scribe Peter Dobereiner remarked that for Americans the Ryder Cup rated "somewhere between Tennessee Frog-Jumping and the Alabama Melon-Pip Spitting Championship." Significantly, for the next staging two years on, the event went European.

Despite Dobereiner's prescience, credit for the change has been attributed to Jack Nicklaus. And the idea became such an unqualified success that the selection of Belgium's Nicolas Colsaerts (pictured) for the forthcoming matches at Medinah means the biennial tournament now embraces no fewer than 28 players from seven Continental nations.

As it happened, the timing of team Europe's launch in 1979 couldn't have been better. It coincided with the first Major victory by a hugely charismatic young Spaniard named Seve Ballesteros in the Open Championship at Lytham, and with a 17-stroke win by a remarkable young German named Bernhard Langer in the European Under-25 Championship at Nimes where Nick Faldo was tied ninth.

Ballesteros and compatriot Antonio Garrido became the Continent's pioneers at The Greenbrier, West Virginia, and Langer was a member of the team at Walton Heath two years later. From there, it was as if each staging attempted to claim its own place in golfing history.

But not everybody was pleased. "I understand why it was done and accepted the will of the majority when they won the vote," said Peter Alliss. "But the decision went absolutely against the Deed under which the Ryder Cup was established. It was about honour -- the ultimate honour of playing for your country -- and not about money. Now it's about money. I find that rather sad."

Alliss went on: "I'd played in three Ryder Cups before a golf writer even condescended to speak to me. Now they're giving press conferences twice a day. It's all publicity, whipping up commerce."

Nicklaus, too, has expressed regrets, though in different terms. "I suggested to Lord Derby (British PGA) that the European professionals be included in the team, particularly as the European Tour was moving into France, Germany, Spain and other countries," he said. And while encouraging more Continental sponsors to invest in golf, the Bear believed the decision would lift "the spirit of that entire golfing tour, giving it confidence and a higher place in the world rankings."

Then he added: "But the thing I fear is that it (Ryder Cup) will lose the reason it came into existence -- to promote goodwill. Maybe I'm a traditionalist but I think the Ryder Cup is part of the foundation of this game and that it doesn't really matter who wins."

One can imagine how such sentiments would be viewed from behind the ropes at Medinah, especially with a European facing a short putt for a crucial victory.

Nicklaus believes, perhaps naively, that the mood of the matches can still be dictated by the players. One certainly remembers individual gestures like that of Payne Stewart when conceding a very missable singles putt to Colin Montgomerie on the 18th at an otherwise bitter Brookline in 1999. But, for the most part, the herd instinct dominates.

The Ryder Cup is most definitely about money, especially on this side of the pond where it has become the European Tour's most important source of income. Yet, in fairness, it must also be credited with lifting the morale of tournament professionals and the quality of events in which they compete.

I remember travelling to amateur Quadrangular International matches which the GUI undertook to help promote the game in Sweden, Germany and France. And I was in Lausanne in 1982 when Sweden shocked the amateur world by finishing runners-up to the US in the Eisenhower Trophy.

The fruits of that performance can be seen in Sweden's nine Ryder Cup representatives, which happens to be the same number as Spain's. And it is also revealing that the last Spanish rookie was Sergio Garcia, who, at the tender age of 19 years, eight months and 15 days, became the youngest-ever Ryder Cup player in 1999.

Country-by-country breakdown is: 9 Spain, Sweden; 3 Italy; 2 Germany, France, Denmark; 1 Belgium. All of which allowed the organisers to lend a certain class to the event by adopting Beethoven's Ode to Joy, the anthem of the EU and Council of Europe.

Sweden's first representative was Joakim Haeggman in 1993 at The Belfry and they had three in action -- Niclas Fasth, Pierre Fulke and Jesper Parnevik -- when it returned there in 2002. But the greatest influx of Continentals occurred at Celtic Manor two years ago, when Germany's Martin Kaymer, Sweden's Peter Hanson and Italy's Molinari brothers, Francesco and Edoardo, were all rookies in a triumphant line-up.

Among the more interesting consequences of such diversity was the improbable partnership of the volatile Garcia with the eccentric Parnevik. And gritty

Scot Sam Torrance with the emotional Costantino Rocca. The Italian made a dithering debut in 1993, crumbling in a crucial singles against Davis Love, this year's US captain. Redemption presented itself, however, in extraordinary circumstances in 1995 at Oak Hill. That was where Rocca and Torrance, in the second foursomes of the Saturday, hammered Love and Jeff Maggert by 6 and 5 after the Italian holed in one on the short sixth.

Following a predictably emotional exchange between partners, the first to offer congratulations was Love, beaming generously. At the end of the match, Torrance declared: "You've heard of the Rock of Gibraltar, well this guy's the Rock of Italy." A further two years on, Rocca was demolishing no less an opponent than Tiger Woods by 4 and 2 at Valderrama.

So, on the basis of their Ryder Cup contributions, who among the 27 players who have seen action so far would merit selection in an all-time Continental line-up? My choices would be: Ballesteros, Manuel Pinero, Jose Maria Olazabal, Sergio Garcia, Miguel Angel Jimenez (all Spain); Langer and Kaymer (Germany); Parnevik, Henrik Stenson (Sweden); Rocca, Francesco Molinari (Italy) and Thomas Bjorn (Denmark). And who knows, the big-hitting Colsaerts could be set to take his place among those elite.

The lyrics of the award-winning ballad The Continental contain such evocative words as "daring" and "passion." These expressions go only part of the way towards capturing the magic which allowed our European brethren to transform the Ryder Cup, starting 33 years ago.

Sunday Indo Sport