By Dan O’Neill, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –
MEDINAH, Ill. — Now for the good part.
The preliminary festivities concluded on Thursday at Medinah Country Club. There were bagpipes and blues, formal wear and speeches, all the dressing and condiments that have become associated with the Ryder Cup. They begin serving meat and potatoes at 7:20 CDT on Friday morning.
The top 12 qualifiers on the U.S. side take up arms, or at least golf bags, against 12 adversaries from Europe in an event that has grown exponentially in grandeur and contentiousness since 1979.
The Ryder Cup began as an informal exhibition between American pros and their counterparts in Great Britain and Ireland. It was first played at Worcester (Mass.) Country Club in 1927 and is played every two years since, with exceptions during World War II and the terrorism of 2001.
However, after World War II the match-play affair transcended into a biennial embarrassment for the GB&I brigade, as the PGA Tour-fed Americans captured 18 of 19 meetings during one stretch.
But in ‘79, initiated by Jack Nicklaus, the qualifications were changed to pit the U.S. against Europe as a whole. The addition of Spanish stars like Seve Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido shifted the balance of power. Since 1983, the Americans have won just four times.
Europe has won eight and retained the Cup once with a tie. Moreover, the new world order across the pond has won six of the past eight encounters. In other words, the game is most definitely on. In turn, fan interest, profitability and promotional value has ascended to new heights.
Europe no longer comes into a Ryder Cup as wannabes, certainly not in this 39th playing at Medinah. For the first time since 1993, the Euros claim the No. 1 ranked player in the world — Rory McIlroy. They also have the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 in Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Justin Rose, respectively.
European captain Jose Maria Olazabal, a decorated Ryder Cupper himself, has only one rookie on his squad. Most of the European participants have been on winning Ryder Cup teams, and their personal records reflect as much.
The Yanks still have the most marketable player in the world, Tiger Woods, and his capricious sidekick Phil Mickelson. No one on either side has more Cup experience than those two, no one has more losing experience than those two. They are a combined 24-31-8.
The Ryder Cup has more than its signature combination of foursomes, four-ball and singles. It is a golf competition with a college football flavor in terms of its galleries, a college basketball character in terms of a home-court advantage. Since ‘83, Europe is 6-1 on its home court, where fans encourage their heroes with singalongs and raucous regard.
Over the same time frame, three of America’s four wins have come in its own building, so to speak. The shouts of “U-S-A, U-S-A” and random inappropriate heckling this week will help explain.
“It really takes one good shot to get them going,” American Matt Kuchar said. “I expect the fans to be really supportive, really passionate, and I’m looking forward to seeing that sort of passion for the game of golf.”
Certainly, there is “passion,” but it’s not always about golf. The new-found contentiousness and shameless nationalism has created some delicious bravado. There was the “War by the Shore” at Kiawah Island, S.C., in 1991, when terms like “let’s go kill them” and “properly hate” were introduced. There was the improbable 1999 comeback on Sunday at Brookline, Mass., underlined by an unsavory U.S. celebration on the 17th green.
And if nothing else, when you need an inflammatory shot in the arm, there is always Ian Poulter, Europe’s answer to Muhammad Ali.
“It means too much to us for it ever to lose that edge,” said Poulter, who, keep in mind, is a PGA Tour member and owns a home in Florida. “This event is unique. I mean, you know, I hate to say we don’t get on for three days, but there is that divide, and it’s not that we don’t like each other. We are all good friends, both sides of the pond.
“But there’s something about Ryder Cup which kind of intrigues me. How you can be great mates with somebody, but, boy, do you want to kill them in Ryder Cup.”
The marriage is odd. A sport that requires participants to police themselves, dress in proper khakis and repair the grass behind them doesn’t normally adopt mantras like “step on their necks and twist your foot,” which is the directive former Ryder Cup captain Lanny Wadkins offered the American contingent.
The four days of gaudery that lead up to the three days of golf came to fruition on Thursday with a pretentious opening ceremony. Afterward, U.S. captain Davis Love III and European captain Olazabal revealed their pairings for the opening matches. Colorful debates about who should play with who, when and why, will fill the idle time in between.
But as the ball goes in the air, there is one truth. For all the discussion about team-building and character, for all the analysis of personalities and strengths, for all the acknowledgments of this player versus that player, these 28 matches of intriguing theater will come down to one thing — putting.
“They always seem to have a few guys that putted so much better,” said Love, talking about his Ryder Cups past. “On Sunday of Brookline, what did we do? We made every single putt … (At) Valderrama, you could not have seen a worse putting team than the U.S. Tiger, Justin, myself, we putted so poorly.
“So I think it’s going to come down to putting, chip-ins, hole-outs, things like that. Because they’re both evenly matched.”
Beginning Friday morning at Medinah Country club, the Ryder Cup is finally about golf. Let the good times, and the putts, roll.