STANDING on the first tee before the start of the 42nd Ryder Cup, the biennial golf event between the USA and Europe, Thomas Bjorn, the captain of the European team, spoke eloquently about the unique opportunities and pressures of playing team golf. “This is a chance to form yourself as a person outside what you do individually,” said Bjorn. “You can use this event to become more than a great individual golfer.”
Behind him, six thousand fans turned the first tee at Le Golf National course in the Paris suburbs into the equivalent of a football stadium, chanting, cheering and booing the players from both sides as they were introduced. Even Tiger Woods, the comeback king and the greatest golfer of all time, was jeered by the home supporters.
Every one of the 24 players – 12 on each team – are multi-millionaires. In qualifying for their respective teams, they have proved themselves the best in their sport over the past two years and they have earned a very good living doing so. Just last week, Justin Rose, the newly crowned world number one and one of the leaders of the European team, received a cheque for $10m for winning the Fedex Cup, the climax of the golfing season in the US.
Yet, for the past three days in Paris, these utterly single-minded, intensely selfish, professionals have been playing for nothing other than national pride and the chance to take home a handsome trophy first donated by the English businessman, Samuel Ryder, in 1927. Forget the Houston Open, the Italian Open, even the majors, the US and British Opens, forget the weekly grind of the tour, this is different, this is the Ryder Cup and there are 11 other teammates to be considered. For one week in two years, players who are used to looking after themselves to the exclusion of pretty well everyone else, are asked to bond together as a team, to eat together, sleep in the same hotel, wear the same uniform and pool their emotions. Most agree that it is the most demanding, rewarding and defining weeks of their lives, regardless of the result. Every Ryder Cup – and this one in Paris has been no different – produces heroes and villains, reveals character and courage. Woods, for one, has never got the hang of team golf.
The emotional scenes played out over the last three days at Le Golf National on the outskirts of Paris were testimony to the health of a competition which 35 years ago was in danger of being forgotten. The decision to extend the selection of the GB and Ireland team to include European players for the 1979 event brought the Cup back to life. With the inspirational Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros, leading the way, Europe began to compete hard against the Americans once again, winning in 1985 in the UK, for the first time in 28 years, and beating the Americans in the US two years later. Ballesteros disliked the American players, who he considered arrogant, and did not try to disguise it. At times, notably in the event dubbed the “War on the Shore” in 1991, when the Americans played in combat trousers, the increasing animosity between the two teams spilled over into outright hostility but the Ryder Cup was back on centre stage, no longer a golf tournament, but a major sporting event.
Last week, somewhat obscured by the build-up to the Ryder Cup, another venerable team competition was being revamped. The Davis Cup, a tennis institution for 118 years, will now be played over one week in November next year (in Madrid) rather than in its traditional format of knockout ties, played home or away during the course of the year. No less than the Ryder Cup, the Davis Cup revealed different qualities in the players: John McEnroe relished the fight, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi rather less so.
The modern player, weighed down by a hectic schedule already, picks and chooses whether to play for his country or not. The Davis Cup has ceased to be a priority for the game’s superstars like Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal and so, much to the shame of the international governing bodies, the tournament has been allowed to wither away. The new format has financial backing from a wealthy consortium but the key to the revival of the Ryder Cup was camaraderie and competitive instinct, the chance, as Thomas Bjorn said, to be remembered not just as a great individual golfer, but as a great team player. Money cannot buy that sort of legacy.
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