Ryder Cup glory on the line this week

This week a truly fantastic sporting event rolls onto our screens – the Ryder Cup. It is surely the most exciting spectacle in golf, and, in its own way, carries as much prestige as the four majors. It is difficult to speculate what it is that draws so many to the Ryder Cup, especially for fans not associated with the participating countries. Of course the fact that it is matchplay helps, as we witness golf at its attacking best. But is this the whole reason?

Typically, to be interested in a sporting competition, one needs to have an allegiance to an individual or team that is participating. Yet as South Africans, most of us find ourselves in somewhat of a dilemma when it comes to taking sides. But gauging from the level of local interest, a lack of preference for the eventual winner in no way detracts from our enthusiasm for the event.

What is even more astounding are the incredible levels of passion the players themselves have for it. These 24 golfers play all year round in the most high-profile, high-paying events in sport, let alone golf. Four majors, the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai offer them the chance to attain riches and fame few sportsmen could even dream of. And yet somehow a place in the Ryder Cup team – an event for which players receive zero remuneration – is one of the ultimate goals of their endeavours.

This could not be better highlighted by the reaction of Hunter Mahan, who, despite being ninth on the US points qualification list, missed out on a captain’s pick.

”It was hard – harder than I thought,” Mahan acknowledged. “Golf is hard right now. I just can’t deal with it all. It doesn’t have much appeal. It feels empty.”

Furthermore, when asked if he would still watch the event on television, his response left the extent of his disappointment in no doubt.

“I don’t think so. Being there, having gone through it… it’s tough to say that, too. You have so many friends on the team and you want them to do well. I don’t feel good saying that, but I think it would be hard to sit and watch it. I’ll watch the match results each game, at the end of each day.”

It seems absolutely fascinating to the outsider. This man is a professional golfer. Perpetual disappointment, along with the joys of success, comes with the territory. You’d also think that more than $4 million in earnings this year and two wins would provide some reasonable consolation. Yet this snub is still too much for him to handle. But such is the allure of this special continental battle for players, fans and captains alike.

One thing is for sure. Team America can expect some raucous support this week in Chicago, and it is probably for this reason that they have been instilled as the bookies’ favourites. As Paul Azinger said in 2008, the galleries truly are the 13th man, and the argument that playing on home shores provides an advantage is fully vindicated by results from the last 15 years. Sportsmanship has always been the name of the game too, and supporters from both sides seem to have got the balance between cheer and jeer about right. It certainly hasn’t always been the case though.

In 1969 at Royal Birkdale, Jack Nicklaus very sportingly gave Tony Jacklin his two-foot putt at the 18th resulting in the overall match being tied. But since then we’ve witnessed the shocking scenes from Brookline in 1999, the infamous “War on the Shore” at Kiawah Island in 1991 and the much documented feud between Seve Ballesteros and Azinger, which eventually culminated in the Spaniard saying “The American team has 11 nice guys. And Paul Azinger.”

But these controversial – and at times distasteful – scenes were just another crucial component of the Ryder Cup’s history which helped escalate global levels of interest. That it has now developed into one of the most esteemed team events in world sport cannot be in dispute. Maybe it is patriotic pride, maybe it’s the fact that it is a team event in a solely individual sport, or maybe it’s the astonishing levels of golf that are reached by these determined professionals. Whatever the reason (s), it is an event that millions around the world observe with excitement, glee, despair and passion.

Finally, there is the burning question of who might lift the coveted trophy come Sunday evening. There is precious little to choose between the two teams, but perhaps it could be said that aside from the overwhelming local support the USA will enjoy, they have a lot of firepower for the singles, and thus might shade it overall. But whatever the outcome, expect some late nights, beads of sweat and enthralling viewing as a cracking and captivating contest unfolds this weekend.

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