Defeat brings a new appreciation to American audience

Ken Jones on the thrilling competition that turned on a sceptical nation

As an American characteristic is to assume superiority in sport it might be imagined that the loss of the Ryder Cup to Europe in Rochester on Sunday came as a great blow to the natives.

On a train from Rochester to Albany yesterday I put this to a number of fellow travellers. Leaving aside one or two who conveyed immediately the impression that they think an interest in games to be evidence of arrested development, none appeared to be in a state of shock; most had caught glimpses of the Ryder Cup matches on television or seen references to it in their newspapers. "Guess our guys must be feeling pretty sore," said a railway employee, Fred Williams, presuming it to be a rotten first for his compatriots and that it is competed for annually.

However, there is unquestionably burgeoning interest in an event that was not thought important enough to merit more than small references on television and the sports pages just eight years ago.

NBC reported viewing figures up by 27 per cent from 1993 when they returned to golf coverage after pulling a vast traditional audience for the college American football match between Notre Dame and Texas. "When people saw some of the spectacular shots from earlier play they kept their sets on. I certainly did and I've never been on a golf course," a New Yorker said. "It was exciting stuff."

USA Today, which circulates nationally, carried a front page picture of Bernard Gallacher and Phillip Walton embracing and even the New York tabloids found room for the Ryder Cup in space that is normally consumed by baseball and football. "U.S. falls in Ryder shocker" announced the Daily News. "U.S. chokes in Ryder Cup" declared the Post.

Even the staid New York Times cross referred to the Ryder Cup on its front page and it was the main item in their sports section. "Stunning comeback sends Ryder Cup back across Atlantic" was the headline above a large picture of the European players celebrating around the 18th green when Walton's win over Jay Haas clinched the match.

It was considered generally to be a crushing defeat for the combative American captain, Lanny Wadkins, who came under criticism for his controversial wild-card pick of Curtis Strange and for ignoring the Open champion, John Daly, as well as Lee Janzen.

In his work for NBC, and proving himself a golf commentator of the highest class, Johnny Miller stressed that Europe's victory had finally established the Ryder Cup as a major event in American sport. "I think that for the first time it got through to people who are not particularly interested in golf," he said. "Instead of thinking it to be a dull game and elitist, they really got a kick out of it."

What fascinates most is the knowledge that sporting millionaires were prepared to suffer all that emotion without making a dollar in prize-money. "Tell you the truth, I find that scary," said another of my companions on the train to Albany.

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