|By Rohit Brijnath, Sporting Life|
How arduous the Ryder Cup, to be held this weekend, can be, was best explained by Billy Casper way back in 1967: ‘Did you ever try to hit a golf ball without any oxygen in your system?’
Golf needs this every-two-years, nail-chomping continental showdown as much as tennis needs its annual Davis Cup. Because every now and then, men, who swear by the cult of individualism, need to be introduced to the idea of team. Especially in a self-absorbed sporting world whose hymn is ‘I Me and Myself’.
Top athletes work hard and are pampered harder. They don’t pay for anything, often even their indiscretions.
In tennis, it is not unknown for the odd player to use a new, free pair of shoes every match. In golf, Anthony Kim, after two tournament wins, is not a potentially good player, he is already a ‘superstar’. In the air-conditioned cocoons they live in, hype is served for breakfast.
But in these Cups, the best teams are made of those who put ‘I’ away in temporary storage. Here, individual ego is not invited, entourages are to be left at home and a whole new mindset learnt.
Golfers may not like a fellow pro for 51 weeks, but must now trust him as a teammate; they may have been outplayed by a rival the previous week but must now sacrifice for him. Welcome to the idea of teamwork.
Severiano Ballesteros, the brilliant Ryder Cup player, was once teamed with a rookie and quickly felt the pressure. As Laurent St John recounted in her book Seve, the Spaniard said: ‘Every shot, I’m trying to play my shot, I’m trying to play his shot. I feel like his father.’.
To which European captain Tony Jacklin tapped his temple and replied: ‘Seve, you are his father in here, that’s why you’re playing with him.’
Ballesteros and the rookie did not lose a match.
Although jingoism is known to flare, these Cups still have the scent of old-fashioned sport. No ranking points are on offer, nor crass mentions made of bonuses.
Individual sport is a hard, rewarding business, but competing in a nation’s name, or in the cause of a continent, offers that rare feeling of playing for something larger than yourself. It is a humbling responsibility to give your everything for a Cup your name will never be on.
John Newcombe, the legendary Australian, reminded his players when he was Davis Cup captain: ‘Roy Emerson once told me that if you lose when playing for Australia, you better leave your blood on the court.’
In golf, too, a man may give less than his best on tour when playing for himself, but not when playing for other men in this Cup. And when it is all over, no stiff cardboard cheque with an oversized amount awaits, but emotional hugs and sloppy kisses from fellows who most weeks settle for a brisk handshake.
America did not lose a Ryder Cup between 1957 and 1977, and now has lost five of the past six Cups. In general terms, this is a nation that courts individualism; Europe, which hasn’t had a No.1 since 1993, has relied on team. The team are known to share cigars; Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, when paired together, barely shared a glance.
ESPN STAR Sports commentator Alan Wilkins suggests ‘there is more harmony on the European tour’. Richard Harries, a British teaching professional in Singapore, points out that US collegiate golf focuses on strokeplay. But in Britain, even juniors play foursomes a lot, and ‘you’re used to carrying the burden of your partner’.
Pride is mostly what the winning team leave with, and pride is precisely what sparks emotion. Certainly it will not be a quiet Cup this week.
Ballesteros once said of the present US captain: ‘The American team have 11 nice guys … and Paul Azinger’, while American Scott Hoch once noted of the present European captain, ‘Nick Faldo is as much fun as Saddam Hussein’.
Eventually, the Americans have to win a Cup, and Faldo may have given them a gentle assist by leaving out Darren Clarke. The Northern Irishman would have brought emotion (the story of his wife’s death and his own brilliant performance thereafter in the 2006 Ryder Cup is unforgettable), form, jokes and cigars to his team.
But Faldo, who used to cycle home as a boy with his blistered hands dripping in blood, is a fellow of cold calculation.
Perhaps this brilliant, methodical golfer, who has won more Ryder Cup points than any man, has his campaign perfectly worked out. But, perhaps, a noted individualist is not quite certain what exactly the ingredients of team are.