Worlds collide in ultimate battleground
This week should add further lustre to a long golfing tradition, writes Paul Hayward
W hen America regained the Ryder Cup at Valhalla two years ago, the winning captain, Paul Azinger, started writing a book called Cracking The Code, in which he confessed to copying his four-man pod strategy for Valhalla from a documentary he had watched about US Navy Seals.
Asked how often he was reminded by the public of that victory, Azinger said: "All the time. What's funny is most people say thank you, instead of congratulations, which I think is really kind of neat. At the time gas was $4 a gallon, we were in two wars, you had the presidential election where there were two completely different philosophies on how our country should be run, and I think America was able to shelve everything and watch for three days. Sometimes you go to a great movie for an escape. The Ryder Cup was that great movie for a lot of people."
If Americans are accused of treating golf's most emotional tournament as ceremonial interruption to their lucrative day jobs, it may be because Europeans now see it as a great underdog opera in which the richer PGA Tour has been tamed by players fighting under the EU flag. The US team appear semi-detached only in the context of Europe's manic urge to win. But the American hardcore -- which includes Azinger and this year's captain Corey Pavin -- look to the military for inspiration.
The Ryder Cup is the feud that keeps on growing, the golfing event that has industrialised intensity, however much today's young stars downplay it, as Rory McIlroy, did to his cost when calling it an "exhibition" -- a slip that has drawn much teasing from his team-mates.
McIlroy says: "A lot of guys have said, 'Oh, what about this exhibition in a couple of weeks' time?' and other stuff like that. But it's all been in good humour. It's just one of those things I'm going to have to talk about for the next few years until people forget about it."
It is 25 years since Sam Torrance holed a 22-foot putt at The Belfry to complete Europe's inaugural victory, the first non-American win since a Great Britain side prevailed at the Lindrick Golf Club in Nottinghamshire in 1957.
Bernard Gallacher, who played in eight Ryder Cups and captained Europe three times, says: "1985 was definitely the turning point. It elevated the Ryder Cup into the top league. Also it was important for the European Tour. The European Tour quickly profited from that victory, people wanted to get involved, sponsors came into the game."
Great Britain and Ireland became Europe in 1979. This necessary move transformed the biennial buddy-up into a fierce culture clash, the foundation for which is seldom apparent when the two sets of players mingle at the Open or the Masters. Nor is there much of a smell of cordite at the opening ceremony, when wives and girlfriends are being shoehorned into greenside stereotypes and the event appears to be a corporate shindig of blazers and smiles. But then the golf starts and the protagonists are consumed. Golf splits in two.
This season's cast is rich not only in talent but in character. Europe's leader, Colin Montgomerie, who has measured out his life in Ryder Cups, has taken to referring to himself in the third person. In the official tournament guide he says of the prelims: "My job is to make sure my team leave that opening ceremony thinking to themselves: 'Captain Monty, I think we're going to be all right in his hands'."
A curator of Ryder Cup dreams, Montgomerie had his first view of it as a spectator at Walton Heath in 1981. "That team was the best American side we have seen," he says. "They had 11 major champions and won by nine points. We used to struggle to fill teams with players who were ranked in the world's top 75. Now I could send out eight players ranked in the world's top 20."
With the Tiger Woods voyeurism factor, the depth of European talent and the innovative choice of venue, this week promises to add more lustre to a tradition that dates to 1927.
"The thing about American players in the last several Ryder Cups is, they have it in their heads they want to win," Azinger says. "The Europeans -- it's in their blood. With Corey, it's in his blood, too, and the question is, can he make it part of his team's blood?" What we will imbibe in Wales started not in 1927 but 1985. Observer