Lessons from the Ryder Cup: Winning Ugly

This is my first original contribution to the #GolfChat Authors project as a contributing columnist.  Check out the other great works at GolfChat.org

The Ryder Cup is the greatest spectacle in golf.

Sure, other tournaments have fierce partisans, but I’d argue those interests don’t generate the intensity of emotional investment and expression of the Ryder Cup. 

I also think the Ryder Cup is approaching a point of critical mass, wherein the event itself is in danger of ceasing to be what it was intended to be, transforming permanently into something that won’t engender the warm and enthusiastic sentiment.  And I, for one, sincerely hope that does not happen.

Why we love The Ryder Cup

Americans Love Team Sports

The Ryder Cup is the only golf event in which we get to pick a team in which to have a rooting interest.  This is particularly important to Americans, as having a “team” is strongly embedded in our culture.

For example, the cross-pollination between our military traditions and team sports is so intertwined so as to render their origins indivisible.  Also, save for the period of our Civil War, our body politic has never been more polarized or divided by and “Us versus Them” mentality.

Our most “American” games, which are our most popular sports, are all team sports: (American) football, baseball, and basketball.  Americans grow up playing these games and rooting for the sport’s college and professional teams.  Then we become adults that teach our children to play these games and pick favorite teams.

This setting aside of parochial interests and historical jealousies in favor of a common interest is a powerful force, one that shows us some of our best potential.  And it is a phenomenon unique to the Ryder Cup in golf.

Golf is exotic and dramatic as a team sport

Golf is predominantly an individual game.  There are literally dozens of professional golfers playing each week’s tournament that nothing more in common than their immediate geography and a Tour card.

We consume professional golf because we’re in awe of how those men and women perform on a golf course.  If I root for a particular golfer, I’m usually rooting to witness history, pulling for an against-the-odds underdog, or simply to witness something I’ve never seen.

I’m decidedly not rooting for any particular golfer to make several hundred thousand more dollars than another golfer.

Part of the allure of the Ryder Cup is that it remains an exhibition, without a purse or prize money.  Sure, there are definite indirect benefits for the competitors in terms of branding and prestige, but at the end of the final match on Sunday, no one hands out insanely large checks to the winning side.

Thus, there just isn’t a similarly deep emotional attachment to the each week’s standard golf tournament, be it a major championship or standard tour event.  Even at the peak of Arnie’s Army, when the golf world was largely divided into Palmer fans or Nicklaus fans, other people did occasionally win the tournaments.  (The same is true in more recent times, when Americans were largely divided into being a “Phil Guy” or a “Tiger Guy,” though other golfers did actually win.)

What about the President’s Cup or the Solheim Cup?  Well, what about them?  Have you ever watched every shot, living and dying with every stroke, of either of those events?  They are great competitions, and they matter immensely to the competitors, but the reality is that they are both copycat events of the Ryder Cup that are transitioning from infancy to adolescence, without the story lines that nearly a century of Ryder Cup competition has produced.

Europe and the United States have a strong, lineal connection with largely common ancestry, history, and traditions.  That invisible common bond is largely absent with the rest of the world, especially in those countries where the former European colonial influence is lesser or non-existent.

Plus, every two years, it’s like fans get to re-litigate the American Revolution, World War II, Beatlemania, and the Cold War all in the space of three days.

Wrap it in the American Flag

The oldest and simplest proven marketing strategy in the United States is for the seller to wrap their product in the warm embrace of patriotism and the American flag.  Despite the many arguments, divisions, and daily problems between its citizens, unification through patriotism is real in the United States.

Never mind world domination through political, economic, or military might. Short of a direct military or terroristic attack on American soil, nothing stirs the cauldron of nationalistic pride in an American than an “Us versus Them” sporting event.

Some of our most important intersections of sport and culture occurred during international sporting competitions.  Jesse Owens domination of the Berlin Olympics comes to mind. The Miracle on Ice set the stage for an American renaissance and the end of the Cold War.

The Ryder Cup is one of the few times that Americans can legitimately use “We” when discussing a golf competition.  The nationalistic element peaks even the casual or non-golf fan’s interest in the event, and has become a biannual holiday for the hardcore golf fan.

Even those casual American golf fans can get swept up in Team USA fever.  Not only will they watch, they will expect to see the United States team win when they do.  Don’t believe me? Consult General Patton on the subject and get back to me.

Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.

General George S. Patton, Jr. (U.S. Army), to 3rd Army troops, 1944.

This perspective is neither hyperbolic nor antiquated.  Americans want to win everything.  We expect that having “USA” across one’s jersey, sweater, or snazzy polo shirt should be motivation enough for our athletes to achieve victory.  Even in events Americans have no chance of ever winning like the World Cup or World Curling Championships, we expect to win, and our futility breeds contempt.

Every Ryder Cup allows Team USA to confirm its fans’ belief in American superiority.  Pride on the line, it has nothing to do with the gentlemen actually playing the matches, and failure is simply inconceivable.   

The Ryder Cup experience is scarce and unique

One of the smartest things the PGA of America and their European brethren did was keeping the Ryder Cup a bi-annual event, even when its popularity soared.  The sponsoring organizations could have tried to cash in on the increasingly competitive Ryder Cup spectacles in the 1980s or 1990s by making them an annual competition, but, thankfully, they resisted.

Born of necessity due to the expense and difficulty of travel in the early 20th Century, the biannual championship allows celebratory and anticipatory excitement to linger and build for two full years until the next cycle’s crescendo at the following tournament.

In a world with a diminishing attention span and dearth of patience, the scarcity of the Ryder Cup is part of its beauty.  A major champion has bragging rights for life, but is only the Defending Champion for one year.  A member of a Ryder Cup winning side, and its fans, have two full years to enjoy the spoils of victory.

Also significant is the fact that the Ryder Cup is a “home-and-home” competition, whereby the teams have home field advantage in alternate editions.  Unlike the Olympics or the World Cup, where all but one team is competing at a neutral site before a divided crowd, each team gets a home game every other time out.

This is critical to keeping fan interest at a fever pitch.  For an exhibition event founded to gin up interest in the professional sport and the game at large, it has evolved into arguably the most important single tournament in golf.

Most obviously, the match play format is rare in professional golf.  In Ryder Cup matches, the golfers are literally competing against one another rather than against the golf course. I’d argue it’s the purest form of competitive golf we see, and the one of only a handful of times it’s available in a team format.

There are many other reasons that the Ryder Cup is special, but the salient point here is that it is, in fact, special.

Why the Ryder Cup is in Danger of Jumping the Shark

And that’s when the whores come in

While the golf industry has suffered through the global economic slump of the last decade, the increasingly dynamic evolution of sports media and technology continues its two-decade long boom.

While traditional golf media (i.e., print journalism) has suffered right along with the rest of the industry, there has never been a greater volume of attention paid to the Ryder Cup, nor has the event been more available or more scrutinized.

The Americans’ very public in-fighting, conjecture, hand-me-down wisdom, and meltdown-come-Kumbaya repeating cycle in search of finding the winning formula has supported volumes of coverage in both the American and global golf press.

Moreover, the competition itself has evolved completely into a television show.  It’s an incredible TV show, don’t get me wrong.  But it’s no longer a simple exhibition of sportsmanship and beautiful golf.

There are massive grandstands and risers constructed at the host course. Hazeltine National Golf Club was expecting 65,000+ fans on Friday to watch no more than four simultaneous matches at any given moment, hoping to contribute to an electric environment.   

There are Pro-Tracer graphics for every tee shot and a bevy on-course reporters, analysts, commentators, play-by-play announcers, and end-of-match interviewers smothering every match.

Yet, you can bet that the players and the captains are the only ones working for free on Ryder Cup weekend. My fear is that the skyrocketing commercialization of the Ryder Cup may lead to its undoing, evolving into something wholly unrecognizable within only a few short decades, replete with Google-Glass player’s cameras and sponsor’s patches making players more resemble race cars than golfers.

Ugly Americans

Team Europe has been on a hot streak for the past two decades, winning eight of the ten most recent Ryder Cup competitions.  To the delight of European players and their fans, the Americans team members, captains, and officials have not been shy is lashing out in anger and frustration at the recent results.

The sting of impotence and losing has only ratcheted up the intensity of the American fans’ desire for a victory, while at the same time inflating the ego and arrogance of Team Europe supporters.

An unfortunate by-product of the above reasons why we love the Ryder Cup has been the increasingly jagged expansion of acceptable fan conduct at the event.  Each successive year produces more intense and more mean-spirited fan “participation.”

With each successive step over the line of acceptable fan behavior, that line is forever pushed out just a little further.  Polite and respectful cheering evolves into open jeering and rooting loudly against the opposing side.

A minority of vocal fans accustomed to spouting whatever vitriolic insults run through their head on Twitter, emboldened by their fellow countrymen and tall, cold beers, are no longer inhibited from making those inappropriate remarks out loud and in person.

It’s been worse with each successive Ryder Cup, probably since Justin Leonard’s improbably miraculous putt at Brookline in 1999.  Every two years, the home side’s fans get the chance to “raise their game” and trundle across the line of rudeness, forever expanding the bounds of propriety.

I wouldn’t be too worried about further escalation of this behavior except 1) Americans love to win…at anything, and 2) if there are two traits Americans perennially excel at, it’s being obnoxious and succumbing to group-think, or more accurately, the mob mentality.

One idiot becomes four.  One witty heckle becomes an endless barrage of classless insults.  The desire to one-up is an activity that only ends when someone truly goes too far.

Unfortunately, there may be no end to this cycle and we really could end up with 100,000 Oakland Raiders fans and a similar number of Scottish Football Hooligans in attendance at the 2024 and 2026 Ryder Cups.

Better Angels

I hope at some point, the golf machine realizes and remedies the path that the Ryder Cup is on.  No, I’m not advocating that the golfers and the fans return to coats and ties on the course and that the course environment resemble a sunrise Presbyterian Church service.

What I’m hoping is that common sense and common decency prevail before part of the beauty of the Ryder Cup is lost to history.

It truly is a beautiful, intense, and amazing event.  It includes some of the most inspiring elements of competition and sportsmanship.

I never want it to devolve to the point that I don’t want to watch it.   I hope it’s still such a venerable event by the time my son is able to watch with his children.

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