James Lawton: Calm after savage storm should induce a sense of perspective in Valhalla captains
A sports event is not the best reason for grown men to behave like teenagers
Tuesday 16 September 2008
In the interests of perspective – a commodity not always rampantly apparent at the Ryder Cup – the captains of America and Europe might usefully open their first official team talks this morning with a weather report.
Well, perhaps not a full report – not all the depressions over the Ohio valley and the isobars and details of the last venomous gasps of Hurricane Ike – but maybe a brief reference to the fact that behind the massive clean-up here over the past 24 hours and the valiant efforts to get power back to a quarter of a million Kentuckians, there has been some gut-wrenching tragedy.
Among the fleeting stone-age inconveniences of trying to shave with the help of a suddenly prized flashlight and fantasising over a cup of warm coffee, there is indeed maybe the need for Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo to tell themselves and their players that if the Ryder Cup is a major sports event, and capable of inspiring great passion and wonderment at some exceptional skills, it should never misinterpreted as the outbreak of the third world war.
From time to time this has been a real danger and such fears have not exactly been soothed by the presence of Azinger and Faldo at the head of affairs.
Both men are imbued with more than average combative instincts and Azinger has clearly been charged with what he sees as a solemn duty of restoring native pride now that Europe appear to have taken what might be described as an iron grip on the tournament. It is one, of course, that the old St Albans garden seed salesman Sam Ryder saw mostly as the chance for golf professionals from either side of the Atlantic to get to know each other a little better – and also recover some of the pride that was inevitably lost when they were so often treated like junior members of the household staff.
Yet both men have offered re-assurance over recent days that their well known differences – largely based, we are told, on Azinger's belief that Faldo was less than compassionate after grinding the American to defeat on the last round of the Open at Muirfield in 1987 – will do nothing to reignite the bitterness of competition which reached its nadir at Kiawah Island in 1991 and Boston eight years later.
It is a resolve that will surely gain quite a bit of resonance in the ears of a community that, while not devastated like so many on the coast of Texas, has been reminded that winning or losing a sports event is perhaps not the best reason in the world for grown men to behave like overgrown teenagers.
That was certainly a legitimate accusation back in South Carolina when Corey Pavin and Steve Pate donned Desert Storm caps and whipped up their fans to ferocious levels of partisanship. Nor was it out of place when the late Payne Stewart remonstrated with American supporters for their treatment of Colin Montgomerie – and suggested that if the Ryder Cup was capable of provoking such extreme reactions he was not too sure he wanted much more to do with it.
Here, such reaction seemed unlikely on the beautiful morning after the storm had passed and repair work on the superb Valhalla course was briskly performed, most arduously on the 12th green, where a television tower came crashing down at the peak of Sunday's threshing final throes of the hurricane. Two years ago at the K Club in County Kildare, some kind of crashing edifice might have been welcome as a brief interlude in the triumphalism that hit comic levels when Europe's captain, Ian Woosnam, declared that we had just witnessed the greatest weekend in history – not golf history, just history.
On reflection, no doubt even Woosie conceded that the slaughter of the undermotivated Americans might have occupied a slightly lower rung of human achievement.
Here, though, it is not hard to understand the instinct of Jack Nicklaus when he says that American pride may be at the point where the possibility of a fourth straight defeat is likely to provoke the most serious resistance, with or without any of the psychological warfare that most expect Azinger to produce at some critical point.
Faldo, of course, has a needling instinct that is in a class of his own and it is maybe such realities that perhaps do point out the value of some reference to the rigours – and the heartbreak – suffered here in the last few days.
In the latter category nothing that happens on the golf course will impact remotely on the Louisville community as much as the fate of a 10-year-old boy named Frederick Wilson. A promising golfer, and grandson of a local celebrity broadcaster and gardening expert, he went out to work on the family lawn just before Hurricane Ike produced the last of its power. The branch of a tree was stripped away. It hit Frederick, fatally.
At the same time a version of the Ryder Cup known as the Humana Fightmaster was being concluded at Louisville's Cardinal Club. America beat Europe by 19 and a half points to eight and a half. In winds that reached 75mph the handicapped golfers were determined to finish the contest and, at the end of one of the most keenly fought singles, the American David Hensley called a penalty shot on himself on the final green. The game ended all square.
Of course, such gallantry was displayed in the Ryder Cup proper when Jack Nicklaus conceded a three-foot putt to Tony Jacklin, though some, charting what they see as an alarming descent into gamesmanship, believe that the 1969 incident might be part of ancient sports history.
Maybe, maybe not, but here certainly there is a sense that this is a match that, after all the years of fast-developing prestige, is in need of a new look at itself – a new gauging of where it is in relation to the image of golf as a game of manners and hard-won dignity.
As much as a sense of its own need for competitive maturity, though, is also the demand for a stronger sense of properly balanced competitive motivation. This, the suspicion must be, is where Azinger comes in and Faldo is on his guard.
The absence of Tiger Woods can never, on the face of it, benefit any team but perhaps it could just be the catalyst for renewed and more serious competition. Woods, famously, likened the concept of team golf to canoe racing – no good if your team-mates were not wielding the paddles powerfully enough. Azinger is likely to inject, into the honest cynicisms of one of sport's supreme individuals, some of the old American golf hauteur so pronounced in the primes of Hogan and Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson. There is, no doubt, a groundswell of belief here, shared by Nicklaus no less, that this is indeed America's time, when such thrusting young pros as Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan and the gung-ho local J B Holmes will come blazing off the first tees.
But then how hard it is to imagine Nick Faldo living comfortably with the idea that his own magnificent playing career, and record achievements in the Ryder Cup, would for ever carry the blemish that it was he who relaxed Europe's hold on the great old tournament.
Plainly, there will no easy concession of Europe's supremacy – a fact that is only underlined by the superb emergence of Ireland's Padraig Harrington. His lustre is so strong now that it compensates, surely, for the fact that Montgomerie, so long the force and the spirit of the European effort, is missing.
Yet beyond such pressures of competition, here in the calm that comes after the most violent of storms there is also that other hope – indeed, some of the Ryder Cup's fondest admirers would put it higher than this. It is really the need for this Ryder Cup to grow beyond some of its most recent expression. The obligation is to retain the best of its edge and gain, maybe, a little more sense of what it should mean to all those who watch it for the splendour of the stage and the skills it provides. Here, no doubt, such qualities will be saluted as warmly as ever. However, there will also, maybe inevitably, be some other demands, not least that the Ryder Cup, after all this time, should finally grow up.
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