“Golf? Bloody Hell!”
“Golf? Bloody hell!”, Sir Alex Ferguson might have said if he had been managing the European Ryder Cup team as they came back from the dead last night, just like Manchester United on so many occasions.
Instead we had Jose Maria Olazabal falling off a cliff of emotion in every interview as his interrogators pressed the inevitable Seve button. I rarely stay up until two in the morning to watch anything on TV. Moon landings, elections and the last day of major golf tournaments are about the limit of my tolerance. As the first two days unfolded, and the Americans were battering “our” boys into the ground, I slipped away at around midnight, telling myself it was inevitable, and anyway, it’s only a game of golf.
Only a game of golf? You must be joking. To paraphrase the late Bill Shankly, another football manager, the Ryder Cup isn’t about life or death. It’s more important than that.
Notice that I say the Ryder Cup, not golf. I’ve been to a few golf tournaments, and have found them to be dreary affairs. As a spectator, you are herded, barked at and required to stand in silence while the grim-faced competitor spends an age sizing up every angle of his putt, or goes into endless consultations with his caddy on the fairway. The closest you come to interaction is an occasional sour-faced nod when he sinks his put. You get the impression that your usefulness on the golf course is limited to your contribution to the prize money.
Not so in the Ryder Cup. Once every two years, the golf course is transformed into eighteen rowdy football stadia, ringed with people who might have been plucked from one of Hogarth’s engravings of dissolute London in the 18th century. Beer-fuelled, chanting, hollering, urging doom and disaster on the players from the other side. And the players themselves, actually showing emotion – though a little less imaginatively than footballers, to be sure. The golfer’s repertoire is strictly limited to the grim-faced air-punch, the bug-eyed look of Churchillian resolve and the occasional high five with the caddy. No cartwheels, knee-sliding on the manicured greens and body pile-ups – at least not until the end.
The Ryder Cup is so far removed from the normal game of golf as to be almost a different species. It made for wonderful TV, especially on the last day as the situation in the match changed minute by minute. In a strokeplay competition attention normally focuses on the tournament leaders, but in a team competition, every individual match counts, and we had a panoramic view of the greatest comeback since Lazarus – well certainly since Manchester United against Bayern Munich in 1999.
The competition is also unique in that it has to be the only sporting event – or any other event for that matter – in which Europe lives as an entity with which people positively identify and get emotional about. Where else would you see a bunch of Danes, Brits, Spaniards, Italians, Germans and Irishmen uniting in a common cause, both on and off the course? That sense of European unity only diffused slightly when the winning team members started draping themselves with conveniently produced national flags, as in the Olympics.
You can gather from this unseemly enthusiasm that I’m addicted to golf. But my golf is not the game beloved of stuffy ex-colonels, of wood-panelled clubhouses with pictures of past captains glowering from the walls, and clubs where your CV is posted on a noticeboard with our membership application. Of silly rules and self-important committee members.
My golf is the joy of competition, of playing with golfers of all ages and from all backgrounds, of eccentrics and eccentric acts, of the struggle against one’s own worst instincts, against red mist, petulance and frustration. It’s the joy of the occasional triumph – a perfect hole or even a single shot, of war stories told and retold over the years among people with one thing in common – the love of the game.
And for me, the Ryder Cup, like no other competition, exemplifies golf at its best.