Who's A Poor Sport? Funny how there's never a problem when the Europeans aren't around

October 30, 2000

The hills of northern Virginia, with their Civil War
battlegrounds, provided a timely reminder last week that golf is
not war and that competition can be, well, civil. Neither of the
Presidents Cup teams acted badly. The spectators cheered their
favorites without descending into drunkenness and jingoism. Even
the media behaved. No columnist, as far as I know, charged that
a player's muffled cough was actually a ploy to steal the Cup.
It's amazing how pleasant team golf can be when the Europeans
aren't around.

There, I said it. Count me as one of the few who refuse to join
the chorus of American-bashing that seems to follow every Ryder
Cup and Solheim Cup. Four Presidents Cups have been played,
three on American soil, and not one of them has been marred by
charges that the Americans are cheats and bullies. We seem to be
fine with Fijians, simpatico with South Africans, A-OK with
Australians, nifty with New Zealanders and positive with
Paraguayans. It's only when we play the Europeans that the
insults fly and the tears flow. Can you spell common denominator?

Consider the recent fuss over alleged U.S. gamesmanship at the
Solheim Cup. Yes, captain Pat Bradley played hardball when she
invoked the Rules of Golf to force Annika (Two Chip) Sorenstam to
replay a shot that she had played out of turn and sunk for a
birdie. Sorenstam was rattled and can be forgiven for suspecting
that her U.S. opponents, Pat Hurst and Kelly Robbins,
intentionally let her play out of turn. But here's what Sorenstam
could have said: "It's my responsibility to know the rules and to
play by them. I'm sorry I cost my team the hole." Instead she
wept over the ruling and then tore into the Americans in a
postround interview.

Go back a year. The U.S. Ryder Cup team's premature celebration
inside the ropes at Brookline was a clear breach of etiquette,
for which the Americans quickly apologized. The European captain,
Mark James, could have said, "It was unfortunate, but I think
they just got a little excited. It was an amazing comeback, and
you have to give them credit for the way they played."

In fact, that's pretty much what James actually said--until the
British writers signaled that they were going to use the
Americans' behavior as an alibi for the Euro loss. James turned
on a dime and slogged Ben Crenshaw & Co. as "an embarrassment to
their country." James wrote a book, Into the Bear Pit, that
characterized Americans as slack-jawed Bible thumpers and the
last day at Brookline as "the day the Ryder Cup about died of

You have to wonder how an independent referee might score these
imbroglios. Why, for instance, was it unacceptable for Dottie
Pepper to urge an American gallery to cheer when her partner
lagged a crucial putt close to the hole at the '98 Solheim Cup,
but acceptable for the European players to paste her picture on a
punching bag and take swings at it? Why is the U.S. flag scorned
as a symbol of Yankee arrogance while the Brits can dance under a
Union Jack the size of a parking lot? Why was it inexcusable for
American fans to cheer when the Europeans missed a putt at Kiawah
Island in '91, but excusable for the European media to
practically leap onto their worktables when the Americans
faltered at Valderrama in '97?

Don't get me wrong; I love Europe. Some of my best friends are
European. But Europe has to accept some responsibility for the
ugly tone of recent matches. Juli Inkster had it right when she
asked why her friends on the European side snubbed her in the
wake of the Solheim face-off. "We play with these girls week in
and week out," she said. "Then they act as if they can't stand
Americans." Inkster left it at that because she's a good sport. A
good sport ignores or makes light of an opponent's bad manners. A
good sport handles victory and defeat with equal grace. A good
sport never toasts an opponent with wine from sour grapes.

Maybe it's just coincidence that the Presidents Cup, the unloved
stepchild of the quarrelsome international matches, is the one
pro team competition that delivers amity with spirited
competition. But if I were from Europe--the only continent
excluded from the Presidents Cup--I might ask myself: Why does
peace prevail in our absence?

Golf Plus will next appear in the Nov. 13 issue of SPORTS

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Long after Justin Leonard's historic putt, James disingenuously changed his tune and called the Americans "an embarrassment to their country."