Ryder Cup Week, the most special in all of golf, is here
After two long years of anticipation, the 2006 Ryder Cup experience gets under way on Monday as the teams arrive in Ireland to begin their final preparations. To get you ready, John Kim describes all the many ways that the Ryder Cup has earned its unique place in the realm of sports.
By John Kim, Coordinating Producer
September 17, 2006
While many people are wrapped up in the start of football season, true sports aficionados know that the ultimate sporting event this month will take place at The K Club in Straffan, County Kildare, Ireland. That's right, it's time for the Ryder Cup -- perhaps the greatest event in sports.
Though some may argue about its rank in the sports world, no one argues that the Ryder Cup is something beyond merely special. But why? It's golf, it's teams, it's match play.
That doesn't make it so unique, does it? No, but the Ryder Cup is so much more than just golfers competing on the course. It is worldwide intrigue, it is rich history, it is the spirit of past champions, and most of all, it is the desire to win for the sake of winning -- not for a paycheck or even a team -- but for the pride of an entire people.
Still not convinced? Tune in Sept. 22-24 and witness for yourself the grandeur that is the Ryder Cup. And as you prepare to watch, remember it's not just about the golf. It is different, it is unique, it is special. To understand how special it is, keep these points in mind:
The Ryder Cup is Truly an International Competition:
Unlike some sports that crown their winners "World Champions," the Ryder Cup actually brings together large parts of the world as the best golfers from the United States take on the best from the continent of Europe (25 nations!).
To be fair, this was not always the case. From 1927-71, the competition was between the United States and Great Britain. Ireland was added to the British team in 1973. But in 1979, the entire continent of Europe was allowed to field a team to oppose the United States. Now a continent famous for its inability to agree on anything gels together with one singular purpose in mind: to beat the lob wedges out of the Yanks.
The Ryder Cup is Ultra-Competitive:
The United States dominated the early years, at one point losing only once (1957) from 1935-83. But since the inclusion of all of Europe, the competitive field has leveled considerably, perhaps even tilting toward the European contingent. In the last 10 Ryder Cup competitions, Europe has won six times, the U.S. has won three times, and there has been one tie (with the Europeans keeping the Cup). Though the United States is almost always a heavy favorite going into the matches, the format and the emotional exuberance of the event seems to have given the Europeans a recent edge. Regardless of individual rankings or prior performance, the only given is to expect the unexpected.
The Format is Exciting:
The format of the event has undergone a few alterations over the years, but the current form seems to intertwine the best of team and individual strategies. Eight foursomes, or alternate-shot, matches, eight fourball matches, and 12 singles matches. Each victory counts as one point for the team. A tie means half a point. The first team to 14.5 wins. A tie means who ever held the cup coming in keeps it another two years.
As it stands, the strategy of the captains is paramount. Simply pairing two great golfers does not make a great team. Individual strengths and preferences must be considered in setting lineups. In 2004, U.S. Captain Hal Sutton paired Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson on the same team twice. They lost both matches. The team match-play format, followed by the singles matches, creates the ultimate in excitement, drama, and unpredictability.
There is Often Bitter Acrimony:
The spirit of The Ryder Cup is to promote competition and camaraderie across the Atlantic. And though that is the prevailing environment for the matches, there have been some very notable exceptions:
In 1929, it is said that British Captain George Duncan was livid at some apparent disrespectful comments made by American Walter Hagen about the match the two would have. Duncan went on to win his match.
In 1949, American Captain Ben Hogan complained publicly about the British team's equipment, causing them to work all night to modify their clubs.
In 1957, American Tommy Bolt, following a tough loss to his opponent, described the Yorkshire fans as the "worst in the world."
In 1969, the British team was instructed by Captain Eric Brown not to help Americans look for their balls in the rough. Both team captains even had to come out and calm down the warring players on the second day of competition.
In 1971, Bernard Gallacher's caddie asked American Arnold Palmer what club he had hit on the 17th hole. Palmer consulted with a referee who determined that the Britons had violated a rule governing illegal requests for advice. The hole was awarded to the American team.
In 1991, the matches were held at Kiawah Island and dubbed by many as the "War on the Shore." Two U.S. players wore camouflage hats in keeping with the theme and the partisan American crowds loudly jeered the Europeans.
In 1999, American Justin Leonard capped a remarkable comeback by the U.S. team by holing a 45-foot putt on the 17th hole. The U.S. had gone into the singles matches trailing by a seeming insurmountable four points, but a thoroughly dominating performance on the final day had put them within grasp of victory. Leonard's unlikely putt touched off a wild celebration on the green, with teammates and family joining in.
Unfortunately, Leonard's opponent, Jose Maria Olazabal still had a putt to tie the hole and continue the match. After the celebrations died down, Olazabal missed his putt. The European media and many American media outlets harshly criticized the Americans for the celebrations, though it is not clear as to whether the participants actually walked onto the line of Olazabal's putt. European Captain Mark James called it "the most disgraceful scene ever at a golfing event," and threatened that many Europeans would not play in the U.S. again.
In 2002, Sergio Garcia learns that his European team has clinched a victory. He then lays down in the fairway to make "snow angels." An obviously angered Davis Love III waits impatiently for him to leave so that he can hit his shot onto the green.
In 2004, Europe crushes the U.S. team by a record margin. But headlines are made soon after as European team member Paul Casey tells a reporter that Europe's team "properly hates" the Americans. Other controversial comments are detailed in a story that is headlined, "Americans are Stupid, I hate them."
The Ryder Cup is the Ultimate in Great Sportsmanship:
Every great sporting event needs passion, and the contentious nature of transatlantic rivalries can obviously overheat. But one unique aspect of the Ryder Cup is that there is a prevailing sense of sportsmanship and camaraderie that always seems to show in the end.
In 1969, though recognized as one of the most partisan and bitter Ryder Cup matches, the event was also one of the most competitive. On the final hole of the final match, Ryder Cup rookie Jack Nicklaus picked up the marker of his opponent, Tony Jacklin, thus conceding the 3-foot putt as "good" and earning the British team a tie.
Though the Americans kept the Cup, the move angered many of Nicklaus' teammates and infuriated his captain, Sam Snead. But yet, history has been much kinder to the Golden Bear as many now refer to the moment as "the greatest gesture of sportsmanship ever."
In 1999, during the rowdy U.S. comeback (capped by the Leonard putt), the crowds were mercilessly stalking Europe's Colin Montgomerie. American Payne Stewart, Montgomerie's opponent that day, was visibly frustrated by the public hounding by the partisan American fans and eventually ushered security over to have many of the hecklers removed from the premises.
Controversy grabs the headlines and spirited competition among world-class athletes will always have some bumps; but all parties -- from golfers to the media to the fans -- all agree that the friendships are closer, the governing agencies are stronger, and the golf fans are better off because of the great spectacle that is the Ryder Cup.
The Ryder Cup is about Superstars:
All the greats of the game, from Sarazen to Hagen to Hogan to Palmer to Nicklaus to Watson and now to Woods, have all left indelible marks on the Ryder Cup and can claim its championship. This is one event where you almost never need a program to know the participants. Can you name five members of the American World Cup soccer team? How about the starting lineup for last years World Series champions? The Ryder Cup is the Super Bowl and the All-Star Game rolled into one. You know the players, and you care who wins. How does it get better than that?
The Ryder Cup is about Pride, not Money:
You will make as much money for watching the Ryder Cup as Tiger Woods will make for competing in it. Zero. Now it is true that each team member will be allowed to designate a school and a charity to receive a monetary gift from the PGA of America, but there is no compensation to the players themselves. And yet, to a man, every player on Tour makes making the team a prominent if not No. 1 goal. And it does mean so much more than money. Players look over putts that might mean thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars all the time. It barely seems to faze them. But give them a putt for one measly Ryder Cup point ...
The Ryder Cup is about Enormous Pressure:
In 1991, Mark Calcavecchia failed to hold on to a four-hole lead with four holes to go. On the 17th hole, a par 3 over water, all he had to do was to keep his tee shot dry to ensure a U.S. victory. He promptly dunked his shot into the drink. A man with a dozen tour wins and a British Open trophy felt pressure he was not accustomed to. After the match was halved, Calcavecchia would retreat to the ocean shore to deal with his emotions. He has claimed that his failure in the match would forever alter his ability to play golf. And this was a Ryder Cup that his team won!
Almost every player that has participated in the Ryder Cup has paid homage to the intensity and pressure that the event brings. Prior to the 1999 event, a few Americans went on record calling it a mere "exhibition." Afterward, they changed their tune quickly, calling it the greatest event in golf.
The pressure to represent your country is huge, but the pressure to perform for a team of the nation's best golfers, when golfers usually play as individuals, is often overwhelming. Two-time Masters winner Bernard Langer has called the Ryder Cup "the greatest pressure I've ever felt in my life." Curtis Strange, the owner of two U.S. Open victories and 17 Tour wins, failed to make a par on the last three holes of his match against Nick Faldo to go from 1-up to losing his match by one (and giving the European team a victory in 1995).
"Every match in a Ryder Cup is like playing the final day in a major championship," so says someone who knows a little bit about playing in major championships, Tiger Woods. When you tune into the Ryder Cup, you should expect to see the best players play the best golf. But don't be surprised when the best become a little bit average. That's the pressure of the event.
The Ryder Cup has the Envelope:
One final and remarkable aspect of the Ryder Cup truly distinguishes it as the ultimate in sportsmanship and competition. The Ryder Cup has "the envelope," a tradition that would never be considered, much less implemented, in any other sport.
Prior to the start of the singles matches on the final day, both team captains hand over an envelope to Ryder Cup officials that contains one name of a member of their team. If, for reason of illness or injury, a player cannot compete in the Sunday singles matches, the other team willingly sits the name in the envelope and both teams agree to halve the point. This occurred most famously in the 1991 "War by the Shore" when American Steve Pate (of camouflaged hat fame as well) was injured in a car accident. The European squad sat David Gilford and agreed to halve the much-needed point. It's as if Kobe Bryant sprained his ankle prior the Game 7 of the NBA Finals and the Miami Heat said they would sit Dwayne Wade to keep things fair.
It's the epitome of sportsmanship, and you'll find it only in the Ryder Cup. The teams that want to win above almost anything else, will not use the other team's misfortune to attain the goal. Golf is certainly a gentleman's game, and here is where the greatness of the gentlemen really shines.
This time of year is a sports fan's paradise. The baseball pennant race is heating up, the football season is kicking off, and the anticipation of hockey and basketball hang heavy in the air. But be aware that the embodiment of what sports is, and can be, will be playing itself out over one spectacular golf course across the Atlantic.
Watch with anticipation and excitement. Watch with the reverence and the appreciation befitting the event. And most of all, watch with the knowledge that you are taking part in what is a celebration of the best players in golf and the best spirit in sports.
Copyright 2006 PGA.com. All rights reserved.
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