Golf: The Ryder Cup - A sporting event for those who are able to afford it

Ken Jones at the Ryder Cup
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The Independent Online
Only people who have been living in a cave without news delivery can have failed to notice the attention being paid presently to a golf match in southern Spain between millionaires representing the United States and Europe.

If the Ryder Cup does not command a great deal of interest outside the white-collar, middle class golfing community in our former transatlantic colony, it has grown into a sports event beyond anything that could have been imagined by the Hertfordshire seed merchant who put the idea forward.

We are not only talking here about an explosion of commercial activity but further proof that the best travelled sports fans are British. Apart from those who trek regularly across Europe with their football teams, there is never a shortage of support in the furthest flung cricket and rugby locations. So many British racegoers turn up annually for the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp that Parisians are now inclined to give it a miss. Also, it doesn't require the presence of one of our own in the ring for British fight fans to show up for championship contests in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

Wandering around Valderrama's lush contours, the language you are most likely to hear is English. A conservative estimate is that Spaniards will be outnumbered by 5-1 in the audience of 25,000. In view of the fact that there are only 110,000 registered Spanish golfers in a population of around 44m and that golf here centres on tourism, this is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, and allowing for the number of British expatriates resident in the area, it emphasises what the Ryder Cup has become for people who can afford it.

Over the past 25 years it has grown and grown. In 1975, on the way to watch Muhammad Ali take on Joe Frazier in Manila, I stopped off to take in the Ryder Cup (before the European format was adopted) at Laurel Valley near Pittsburgh.

The first day there I was driven to the course by an avid golfer who had taken a week's leave from schoolteaching to assist with the arrangements. "What is this Ryder Cup?" he asked. Expressing a view still shared by the majority of his compatriots, he added "I don't think there can be much in all this if there isn't any money at stake."

It was the Ryder Cup in which Brian Barnes twice defeated Jack Nicklaus (otherwise it was a familiar story, America defeating Great Britain and Ireland by 21-11) but even that did not greatly excite American hacks. Insularity comes into this but Pittsburgh's leading newspaper at the time, The Post Gazette, covered the match in 12 paragraphs.

As recently as 1987, when Tony Jacklin's team of Europeans defeated the US at Muirfield Village, the reaction of most Americans was "What is the Ryder Cup and why did we lose it?" The New York Times' interest was confined to a reference in the sports round-up just above results in cycling and yachting.

In 1985 reporters were not present in enough numbers to constitute an unlawful assembly. In Valderrama more than 500 media representatives work in a tent large to accommodate a medium-sized airliner.

The day after Europe's remarkable victory at Oak Hill two years ago I took a train from Rochester to Albany in the company of passengers who had travelled overnight from Chicago. On being informed of the result, they expressed little if any interest. A subsequent telephone call to Rochester confirmed that it was still awash with the celebrations of British supporters. Fly the flag and you are sure to find them. If it's not the Barmy Army, it's the monied class that has descended in droves on Valderrama.