The 39th edition of the Ryder Cup in Medinah, Illinois was one of the epic sporting duels in the 21st century so far. 

The titans of Europe faced off against the behemoths on the United States in the biennial competition that separates Golf from nearly every other sport. In a game, which is more associated with quiet strolls across the British countryside, the fervour that surrounds a Ryder Cup is something special.

For one weekend, a small dimpled ball will dominate the back pages. Uncharacteristic feelings of nationalistic pride consumed golf fans as some of the best players in the world faced each other, with Europe squeaking past by one point, 14.5 to 13.5. While the United States always get together to support their team, even during a presidential election, golf is unique in uniting Europe together. This was one of the most even Ryder Cups in history and it was no surprise that competition went to the final green. It was a fine example of what the Ryder Cup is all about.

More people may tune in for the World Cup or an Ashes contest, but the Ryder Cup has so many parts, so many storylines, that it is truly the best competition in the world.

Two continents collide

Sure, other sports have all-star teams and World XIs, but in no other sport do two continents go toe to toe with such intense rivalry. Since 1979, when the Great Britain and Ireland team became the European team, players from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden have played under the blue flag with the yellow stars, and nowhere else is this mix of nationalities fighting under one banner so apparent.

Golf is normally a sport of individuals. The course itself is the opponent. There are few match play events, where players come up directly against each other, playing each other of 18 holes, and the prestige of the World Matchplay championship or the Omega Mission Hills Cup, the ‘World Cup of Golf’ pales into insignificance compared to the Ryder Cup.

While players are no doubt honoured to represent their country, and golf has Ryder Cup-lite events like the Walker Cup (amateurs only), the Presidents Cup (USA vs Rest of the World, not including Europeans) and Solheim Cup (Women’s Ryder Cup equivalent), they are outshone by the main event. 

In fact, success in the Walker Cup, the ‘World Cup of Golf’ and the World Matchplay Championship is seen as a sign that a player would make a good Ryder Cup pick.

Tiger vs Rory 

Rivalries at the very highest level of sport are not unheard of. Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, Ali and Frazier. 

They cover all the bases – differing styles, differing personas, differing public perceptions – but Tiger Woods and Rory McIlory have it all, not least being far and away the No.1 and No.2 in their sport, in terms of ability, prestige, and public attention.

The young Northern Irish prince usurping the Californian-born King. The happy go lucky spirit, cheeky smile, curly hair of the son of Hollywood, contrasting with the intense, brooding, single mindedness of the 14-time Major winner. The innocence of the current USPGA champion and the tainted history of the US side’s enigma.

But perhaps the greatest difference between the two golfers is that McIlory is very much a team player, whereas Woods has often let the unique challenge of the team environment affect his game. 

He failed to gel with whichever partner he was paired with, until finally finding a positive relationship with Steve Stricker. McIlroy is happy to play any role for the Europeans, although the world No.1 will be expected to be a leading points scorer.

Fans pay big money to see the two Nike stable-mates square off against each other , but while the United States single out the Ulsterman as the man to beat, forgoing all others, Woods no longer holds any fear for the European team.

Fourballs, foursomes, and singles

Imagine combining Twenty20, One Day and test cricket in one tournament. Or 11-a-side, 5-a-side and beach football. That is what the Ryder cup is like.

Fourballs (two pairs playing against each other, each golfer with his own ball, lowest score wins the hole), Foursomes (two pairs, one ball per pair, each golfer takes alternate shots in his pair), and Singles (1 vs 1) present dilemmas for both captains.

Pairs have to complement each other, not just in style but particularly in terms of personality. Lee Westwood is one of the finest players from Tee to Green, but his putting goes astray. 

Ian Poulter rarely troubles the winners circle throughout the rest of the year, but come the Ryder Cup a beast is unleashed and the Englishman is credited with reviving Europe’s hopes as they found themselves 10-4 down until Poulter swung momentum away from the Americans.

What do you do with debutants? Who do you pair together? Do you make sure every player plays some part on either Friday or Saturday before the final day’s singles?

Then there is the order, a problem especially apparent in the singles. Do you put the big guns out first to get points on the board and ease pressure on those following, or do you keep them in reserve, making any points won early on a bonus? And what will the opposite side do?

This concoction of differing games requires different tactics from players and captains. It is very much foreign to the golfer’s normal routine of self-interest and commitment, and the team who comes together best and adapts to the circumstances will come out the victor. The captain will have a vital role play in this.

They say captains can’t win a Ryder cup, but they can lose one.

The crowds

American crowds can be....’rowdy’, even when it’s only their favourite player in contention. When it is their country’s pride at stake the patriotic fever spreads quickly and loudly. This makes a great atmosphere, and even in Illinois, there was plenty of support for the Europeans to add to noise.

The passion can cross the level of decorum that golf demands, as seen at Brookline in 1999 when, after Justin Leonard had made a putt in the deciding match on the 17th hole, team members and supporters stormed the green despite Olazabal still having the chance to make his putt and save the hole. Brookline signalled the peak of the nationalism of the event and recent editions have been played in a much better spirit.

But while in the majors fans applaud good play and reflect on skill, pluckiness, and the underdog spirit, in the Ryder Cup they really feel as if they are winning and losing with the players. This is not a case of wanting a fellow countryman to win, it is wanting your country to win, for you to win, and this adds to the magic of the Cup.

Team of individuals

As mentioned, Golf is a sport for individuals, like Tennis, Boxing, or Snooker. It’s a more isolated sport than those three, and what other sport can you finish the competition behind the leaders and yet end up winning?

The recent FedEx Cup carried with it a $10million bonus prize for the overall winner, Tiger Woods has earned over $100million in prize money alone, and endorsements can add tens of millions to a player’s bank account. However, there is no money on offer to the winners of the Ryder Cup.

The Davis Cup gets short shrift from Andy Murray. Ronnie O’Sullivan doesn’t represent England. Once they are into the professional ranks, boxers do not don the gloves for their country. Yet for these multi-millionaire golfers, the race to secure a Ryder Cup place takes precedent. 

No one turns down the invitation. Only serious injury keeps them out (and unlike England footballers, they aren’t back playing the next weekend). There is no standby list because those who would be next in line will happily cancel whatever they had planned to be part of this spectacle.

Unpredictability

Because this kind of event only happens every two years, it is very difficult to predict what will happen. Players can enter in great form, or struggle to keep the ball in the golf course, but with a special atmosphere and a rare kind of pressure, players can react differently.

In a sport that does not naturally stir feelings of national identity, the Ryder Cup creates a kind of competition that is unique, not just to golf but in any sporting arena. With Europe bickering over deficits and bailouts, and the United States split on so many issues, the Ryder Cup unites.

Other events may attract more viewers, more sponsors, more headlines, but for one weekend every two years the eyes of the sporting world will be on the Ryder Cup. And in recent years Europe have dominated their American cousins. 


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