Sport Golf

Saturday 17 February 2018

Identity crisis cast aside when the walls come down

Tommy Conlon

It is a rare thing to be utterly immersed in the drama of a competition without being unduly bothered about its eventual outcome.

But that's the Ryder Cup for you. Or at least it is for me. And this in a world of sport where casual relationships and instant attractions are usually the order of the day. Any excuse at all and we're choosing sides, because a sporting event is better enjoyed when you have someone to support.

It never means as much when you're stuck in neutral, indifferent to the result. So, if it's not your own team or your own countryman involved, you will still find a way of rooting for one side against the other. Everyone has permission to jump on the nearest bandwagon, and jump off it as soon as they please.

The Ryder Cup should therefore be a no-brainer by these low standards. You're European, so you support Europe, right? Ah, but all politics is local, and sport isn't far behind either. No doubt there were people all over the continent cheering on Europe last Sunday night who don't feel in the least bit "European", whatever that means. In fact, there are Catalans who don't feel Spanish, never mind European. And Bavarians who don't feel German and Yorkshiremen who don't feel English and Irishmen who don't feel Irish -- Rory McIlroy not the least of them.

We would venture that very few spectators on this side of the Atlantic uttered the death cry "Come on Europe!", even as they lost themselves in the excitement of the on-course battle. Team Europe remains a construct, assembled specifically for this tournament, then disassembled and folded away for another two years. It's a top-down entity, contrived in the committee rooms of golf's grandees; it doesn't have an historic foundation in popular grassroots as most major teams in any sport do.

On the American side, it's obviously not an issue. While thousands of their fans chanted "U-S-A!", the smattering of European supporters present in Chicago weren't responding with chants of "Europe". They were singing the "Olé" song instead. Many of them were waving the flags of their native countries rather than the flag of Europe. They cheered their players on mightily. They were united in their support -- but somewhat ambivalent in their identity.

It's not just an identity thing either. It can be an identification thing too. Like, who is Peter Hanson anyway? What does Nicolas Colsaerts actually look like? Francesco Molinari? Couldn't pick him out of a line-up. To paraphrase the English songwriter Billy Bragg, how can you lie there and think of Europe when you don't even know who's in the team.

The irony is that none of this really matters in the end. Since the tournament changed to a Europe v USA contest in 1979, the Ryder Cup has delivered a stunning litany of dramatic moments. Various players, journeymen and geniuses alike, have produced multitudes of outrageous shots, and awful blunders, under the crushing pressure. In its short lifespan it has already accumulated a rich legacy of sporting theatre.

And last Sunday was no different. It may even have surpassed all previous standards for drama in such circumstances. Stripped of its corporate infrastructure, and irrespective of its synthetic tribalism, the Ryder Cup remains a pure examination of a sportsman's skill and courage.

The 12 singles matches took just over six hours to complete. As the afternoon wore on and Europe's comeback gathered momentum, one's perennial reservations about its relevance as a tournament once again withered away.

Justin Rose's monster putt on the 17th did it for me. One hole down against Phil Mickelson with two to play, he'd already sunk a 12-foot putt on 16 to keep the match alive. On 17, he was faced with a putt from 35 feet to win the hole and leave them all square going to the last. And he landed it, a stroke of such audacity it had Mickelson applauding. Rose birdied the 18th to win a match he'd been on the verge of losing.

When the steely Jim Furyk wobbled and then finally cracked against the somewhat flaky Sergio Garcia, the atmosphere had that special sort of mystique hanging in the air. The sort that usually

sees logic suspended and improbable things happening.

Afterwards, they attributed it to the spirit of the late Seve Ballesteros, the great Spanish champion of the European game. He was there, they said, hovering over them. Ballesteros had been a great friend and mentor to their captain, Jose Maria Olazabal. By all accounts a deep and intense man, Olazabal had invoked Seve's memory among his players that week.

Garcia acknowledged the spirit of Ballesteros too in his post-game comments. But, he said, they were also doing it for Olazabal because "he's one of the nicest guys I've ever met".

Back in a hotel at Heathrow airport two days later, Olazabal had time to reflect on the events he'd witnessed. He didn't say that, really, it's not about the idea of Europe at all. But it's about rich golfers shedding, if only briefly, their self-centred outlook on life.

"That's the beauty of the Ryder Cup. What you see this week is all the walls erected individually, to be in the comfort zone, to hide our emotions, all these elements are pushed aside. They show themselves, open their hearts and show their feelings. Afterwards, they go back behind the wall again."

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