Being as patriotic as the next guy, I didn't expect to find
myself rooting for the Europeans in the 1999 Ryder Cup. I
certainly cheered for the U.S. in '91, '93, '95 and '97, but
there was something about these particular European golfers, and
something else about their American counterparts, that left me
pulling hard for an upset last weekend in Brookline, and a
number of my friends shared this foreign inclination. What made
my stance stranger still is that I'm a member of the Country
Club, which hosted the event.
Proudly, I hasten to add. The Ryder Cup is one of the great
sports events in the world, and most of the members agreed it
was worth two summers of watching the course be tuned and
tweaked--and eventually closed and overrun--in order to bring
such a special competition to Boston. Then we found out that the
Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world, Tiger Woods and David Duval,
didn't consider it a competition, since there wasn't a fat
paycheck at the end of the day. Exhibition was the word they
The knee-knocking, vomit-inducing atmosphere of a Ryder Cup
isn't usually something one associates with an
exhibition--"Everything shakes except the shaft of the club, and
that's when it's still in the bag," Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain
recalled of his first Ryder Cup shot--but let us not quibble
over a matter of semantics. A practice round may be more in
keeping with the tone of an exhibition, and on Aug. 30 the U.S.
team was scheduled to come to the Country Club to play one.
Captain Ben Crenshaw, a fanatical student of the game, wanted
his charges to familiarize themselves with the course, absorb
some of the history of its venerable past and generally begin to
bond, something the team badly needed after the unseemly dispute
over pay was aired at the PGA Championship at Medinah.
On July 27 a letter was sent to the Country Club's membership by
John Cornish, the chairman of the club's Ryder Cup committee,
saying that Crenshaw had agreed to let the members attend the
practice session, with the caveat that no guests, with the
exception of spouses and kids, be brought, no autographs
allowed, and no one be permitted to speak to these great
warriors so they could concentrate on learning the subtleties of
the course. The round would be marshaled by volunteers to ensure
that members maintained a "respectful distance" from the
players. Fair enough. This was a rare perk for the hundreds of
volunteers who collectively had spent thousands of hours in
preparation for the 33rd Ryder Cup: an opportunity to view the
U.S. team without jostling for position with 30,000 other fans.
Enthusiasm among the membership was high, and about 300 called
to say they would be coming. With family, that meant anywhere
from 600 to 1,000 spectators would be on the grounds.
Too many, said Crenshaw. How could his players bond with each
other and the course while all those people were gawking at
them? Either limit the access to 200, he insisted, or the
practice round was off. Cornish decided it was impossible to
fairly limit viewing to 200 members, so a second letter was sent
out disinviting everyone. The club, including the swimming pool,
would be closed until 3 p.m. that day.
It was not a popular decision. Many people had rearranged
vacation plans and juggled schedules to be sure to be in town
for the practice round. As it turned out, though, they didn't
miss out on as much as they thought they would. Only eight of
the 12 members of the U.S. team chose to take advantage of their
private bonding day, Woods not among them. Still, the whole
episode brought home how far the game has come. Back in the
early 1900s, when professionalism was a dirty word in golf, pros
were not allowed into the clubhouses of private clubs like the
Country Club. Now it's the members who aren't allowed on the
grounds when the pros move in.
Oh well. I was still ready to wrap myself in red, white and blue
when the Ryder Cup began. The Europeans, after all, had won the
last two and had retained the Cup in five of the last seven. I
was sick of seeing that smug look of satisfaction on Nick
Faldo's face, and Seve Ballesteros's flaming eyes and jutting
jaw. It was time for some Yankee revenge.
Except there was no smug Faldo. No flaming Ballesteros. No
Bernhard Langer. No Woosie. No one capable of boiling my
American blood. The first European player I saw on the practice
tee was Darren Clarke, a big-bellied, jovial Irishman who looked
like someone you might see on the other side of the bar. He was
laughing, talking to onlookers, signing autographs. Sergio
Garcia...how could you not love Sergio? Informed by a fan that
Tiger Woods had put a drive onto the roof of a tent some 300
yards away from the practice tee, Garcia did likewise and stuck
out his tongue in jest.
At the press conferences the Europeans were gracious,
self-deprecating and funny. Asked about the Country Club's wide
fairways, Olazabal, who's often wild off the tee, said, "The
fairways are never wide enough for me." Underdogs was too good a
word for the rookie-laden European team, Sweden's Jesper
Parnevik insisted. "We are the underpuppies," he said. Asked to
talk about the influence of the 19-year-old wunderkind, Garcia,
Lee Westwood, the lone Englishman on the team, said, "It's nice.
He sits in the corner and does his homework."
"Then he brings it up to Jesse to make sure everything's right,"
added Clarke, "and gets a little gold star if it's all good."
Jesse is Mark James, the deadpan European captain whose bone-dry
humor set the tone for his team. He took issue with the notion
that the Ryder Cup was akin to World War III. "At the end of the
week I'll be able to shake Ben warmly by the throat and sit down
and have a beer with him," he said. Informed that Sweden's Jarmo
Sandolin seemed a bit eccentric, James replied, "I wouldn't say
Jarmo is a bit eccentric. I think he's very eccentric. But we
have a lot of eccentric people in Europe. Jarmo fits in great."
Asked what made a good captain, James succinctly answered, "A
good team." He believed he had one.
The Americans, meanwhile, were being, well, so American:
boastful, humorless, utterly uncharming. They repeatedly
violated the first rule of team sports: Respect your opponent.
Payne Stewart was quoted as saying, "On paper, they should be
caddying for us." Huh? Two-time Masters champ Olazabal should be
caddying for Jeff Maggert, he of two career PGA Tour wins?
Maggert may have thought so. Borrowing a line from Ben Hogan, he
called the American team "the best 12 players in the world," a
claim that may have been true, if rude, when Hogan made it. From
Maggert it was just dumb.
There was even an arrogance to the way the Americans practiced.
The so-called Gang of Four, who had brought the money issue to
the fore--Duval, Woods, Phil Mickelson and Mark O'Meara--got so
fed up playing behind the methodical Europeans during the first
official practice round on Sept. 21 that they skipped around the
course, virtually ignoring the 30,000 spectators and taking
little time to try to learn the subtleties of the Country Club's
greens. The Europeans, by contrast, spent at least five minutes
on every green chipping, putting and hitting sand shots and
afterward tossed signed balls to the appreciative crowd.
Was it all an act? I asked a friend who was volunteering in the
locker room if the Europeans were as charming and gregarious
behind closed doors, when thousands of eyes weren't on them.
"Famously so," he replied. The Americans? "Tom Lehman and Mark
O'Meara have been very gracious. The rest of them...." He made a
gesture with his hand to show that their eyes were always
focused straight ahead.
Last Thursday, the final practice day, all 12 European team
members played the full 18 holes. Another friend who was a
standard-bearer for the foursome of Clarke, Westwood, Olazabal
and fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, said that they played
for $50 a hole, razzing each other mercilessly. Assistant coach
Sam Torrance, following the match in his cart, blew the horn in
the middle of a key putt by Clarke. This was a real team. They
liked each other and enjoyed spending time on the course. The
Americans, meanwhile, went off as twosomes, and both Mickelson
and Woods walked in after a quick nine holes, leaving their next
day's alternate-shot partners, Duval and Lehman, respectively,
to play in by themselves.
A Boston friend was so impressed with the difference in the
atmosphere surrounding the two teams that he went out that night
and placed a $100 wager on the Europeans, getting 5-to-2 odds. I
didn't need a monetary interest. While watching their improbable
comeback, I found myself unable to cheer for a group of men who
couldn't get over themselves, even if they were from the U!S!A!
answered, "A good team." He believed he had one.
violated the first rule of sports: Respect your opponent.