Ryder Cup Countdown

Yesterday, European captain Darren Clarke unveiled his three picks that will join the nine qualifiers to face the American side at Hazeltine National, Minnesota, in the 2016 Ryder Cup. Those names were Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Thomas Pieters. No place for previous heroes G Mac and Luuuuke; the ethereal nature of current form is no respecter of previous fairytale.

I must admit that I had a sneaking fancy for Shane Lowry, in a purely golfing sense you understand. He has experienced the cauldron of battle on American fairways with his recent near miss in Dustin Johnson’s US Open, and is the sort of streaky player who might have excelled in the fourballs if paired with a steadier partner. However, it is difficult to argue with the choice of Thomas Pieters who at the age of just 24 has won three times in the last 12 months on the European Tour. His selection makes half the team rookies, but his form over the last month demands his inclusion.

And the other two picks were set in stone a long way out. With a young and inexperienced line up, the focus and grit of two-time major winner and Medinah maestro Martin Kaymer was going to be appealing. And Clarke was always likely to pick his old pal Lee Westwood, an increasingly flaky competitor but ever-present since 1997. Expect the occasionally-obtuse veteran to hit the first tee-shot in a month’s time.

The big loser appears to be American-based Scot Russell Knox. Officially ranked 20th in the world, he appeared to not quite take the hint when Clarke asked him to play a recent event where a good finish would have seen him qualify automatically, preferring instead to take two weeks off celebrating his recent win on the US Tour. In my opinion, prioritising rest and preparation for the cash-laden FedEx standings over playing for your continent speaks volumes about his personal motivations, and Clarke was right to ignore his claims.

It may seem odd to an untrained observer that, with the world of sport at my feet (the Olympics, Premier League transfer deadline day, ODI cricket and US Open tennis), I choose to witter on about 24 men in dubious shirts hitting balls around a Minnesota field in a month’s time. I have long since abandoned ambitions of playing anything vaguely resembling golf myself, and it could be argued that the viewing action is rather pedestrian when compared to other more high-tempo sports.

Somehow, for me, the staccato nature of the play and the time between shots only builds the tension. The fact that, barring a Hale-Irwin-esque intervention from the galleries, the player himself is the only one who controls his ball and therefore his destiny makes the drama purer, rather than detracting from the spectacle. The only one to blame at the end of the day will be yourself.

With the possible exception of a Lions tour (strangely, also a phenomenon that brings together disparate nations to fight the greater foe), the Ryder Cup remains the shining pinnacle of my sporting calendar. Over the next four weeks I shall be whipping myself up into a frenzy of patriotic hysteria, accompanied by the purchase of flags, beers and grazing material from participating countries. Games and quizzes shall be prepared for the catalogue of usual suspects that will grace my sofa over the three days. European costume and Monty-masks will be encouraged. In our household it has become the sporting equivalent of Eurovision, but with a much better chance of us winning.

The seeds of this partisan fervour were sown with our three victories in the late 1980s, grew with the Ballesteros v Azinger feud during ‘the war on the shore’ in 1991, and flourished with the brilliant final day fightback at Oak Hill in 1995. And I defy anyone to suggest more drama-laden sporting occasions than the astonishing renewals of 2010 and 2012. If anyone can watch the final day of Medinah without screaming in delirium by the end, they are not human.

The miracle at Medinah gains momentum

The miracle at Medinah gains momentum

But really, I have Justin Leonard et al at Brookline in 1999 to thank for my very personal infatuation with the contest, although throughout almost two decades of sports-loss counselling I never thought I’d write those words. I can still remember the mottled piece of tarmac and brown peeling paint on the garage door by the spot on my driveway where my best friend and I nearly came to blows after he adopted a strangely tolerant stance, bordering on contrary, of the American antics that day.

The behaviour of the boorish Massachusetts crowd was simply disgusting. Sympathisers dismiss it as over-exuberance in response to a stunning comeback, but actually it was pre-meditated (some fans held lists of European pre-shot routines so they knew when to shout out with maximum effect) and verging on the criminal (wives being spat at). Colin Montgomerie, the European talisman and Ryder Cup demigod, was pilloried to such an extent that his father had to leave the course, and his opponent Payne Stewart (one of the few good men on the American side to recognise and denounce the repulsive conduct of his own fans) conceded the match as things descended further into chaos on the 18th hole.

Europe required no further incentive to win six of the next seven renewals (a sequence only broken by the 2008 farce overseen by the clown Faldo), some of them in crushing fashion on US soil, some of them in near miraculous circumstances. It is the mirror image, over an elongated timeframe, of the last Solheim Cup where the inevitable American comeback followed some inept and unsporting European decisions during the finale to the fourballs.

Yet the pain burnt into my soul at Brookline still requires soothing with biennial retribution. I want our boys to humiliate the opposition to such an extent that they never want to pick up a golf club again. I want the pompous, xenophobic American galleries to be muted to an utterly-defeated silence. I realise you may find it unseemly for a grown man to become so obsessed with as ugly a concept as revenge, but as the old phrase goes, if it doesn’t hurt it doesn’t matter, and it really, really matters to me.

I could conclude with a trite statement about wanting ‘golf to be the winner’, but anyone who is passionate about sport will know that’s not true. I really don’t care what spirit the matches are played in, and if the American crowd descends into Brookline territory again that will only make victory all the sweeter. Really, the only thing that matters is Europe holding the Ryder Cup on Sunday 2 October 2016. It’s going to be a long September…..