James Lawton: From acrimony to camaraderie – this Ryder Cup has everything

Personal duels promise to make this week's tournament golf's last great amateur contest

Almost like clockwork, here in this Welsh valley the 38th edition of the Ryder Cup ticks with much of the needling edge and expectation that has built so seamlessly, so relentlessly, since Jose Maria Olazabal 23 years ago danced his flamenco burst of triumph at the course of Jack Nicklaus.

America's first defeat on home soil, under the captaincy of the great Nicklaus, seemed like the equivalent of the declaration of a blood vendetta.

Europe's captain Tony Jacklin, who had stunned America nearly two decades earlier with the temerity of US Open victory, wept so copiously that one observer from the Scottish home of the game observed, "Aye, it's all very well but what do you do when your daddy dies?"

By and large the caravan of the Ryder Cup has galloped successfully through such cynicism. Yes, it has been buoyed by huge hype and some of the participants, notably Tiger Woods's great friend Mark O'Meara, have argued strongly that more of this financial bonanza should have reached a locker room inhabited by multi-millionaires.

But then even American presidents have played the game in elevating to the peaks of professional sport an event whose founder, the amiable English corn merchant Sam Ryder, envisaged as a relatively low-key collision of American and British pros celebrating a new status that permitted them to change in the clubhouse, like fully paid-up members of society rather than a talented section of the servant class.

Bill Clinton, who toyed with such radical policies as health care for the poor and a curb on the ability of the neighbourhood loony to walk into a gun shop and arm himself for mass murder, did this at the grave risk of rejection from arch Republicans like Tom Watson, but the doors of the White House were thrown open for the heroes of country club America.

Justifications, though, have never been far away, at least in terms of dramatic competition and unlimited controversy.

What better way to preserve a deep desire to win than the jingoism provoked by a pair of future American captains, Paul Azinger, the victor in Valhalla two years ago, and his successor here, Corey Pavin, when they donned Desert Storm caps and played the patriotic card so hard in Kiawah Island in 1991 they persuaded quite a number of rednecks that it was an issue not between allies but America against the world.

Five years after the American team invaded the green in triumph as Olazabal contemplated a putt at the Brookline Country Club, and the late Payne Stewart walked away and admitted it was one of the low points of his career, another American captain, Hal Sutton, complained that Europeans who remembered so hotly the incident should move on in their lives.

He was right that European sportsmanship had not always been legendary – remember the partiality of the crowds at the Belfry – and who, after all, had performed the supreme act of gallantry in Ryder Cup action?

Yes, it was Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, ceding a nasty little two-footer to Jacklin at Royal Birkdale in 1969 to ensure that a contest brimming with acrimony – after the British and Irish captain Eric Brown had ordered his players not to look for American balls in the rough – ended in a historic draw. Nicklaus's gesture would always be known as "The Concession", something which perhaps cannot be expected if it should happen that the brilliant young Rory McIlroy finds himself in the path of Tiger Woods some time over the next few days.

Tiger has taken hard McIlroy's suggestion that the world's number one player has come to represent a weak point in the American attempt to retain the trophy and so, the Ryder Cup, as though it is pursuing some dark art, has yet again produced a point of hard controversy – and focus.

Yet again there are dramas to spare. Not the least of them is Padraig Harrington's attempt to justify the faith of his captain Colin Montgomerie, and partner in the brilliant victory over Woods and Phil Mickelson in Michigan six years ago, in his ability to revive his game sufficiently to banish the regrets that Paul Casey and Justin Rose were denied wild card selections. There is also Montgomerie's passionate attempt to crown a superb Ryder Cup career with a smoothly coherent winning strategy.

Supremely, though, there is the attempt of the Tiger to move a little way along with the road of public rehabilitation with his best Ryder Cup performance. This week he has been assailed for a miserable record in the contest to which he was first exposed as a 21-year-old in Valderrama. Solemnly he has responded with a passionate declaration of his commitment – and the claim that his game is being nurtured back to life with the help of his unorthodox new coach Sean Foley.

So is it fair to assume that with intrigue levels pitched so high, the Ryder Cup's future remains as untrammeled as ever? Maybe, maybe not, because some see forces at work that might just make this the last of the great Ryder Cups. Not because the format is no longer splendid, perfectly geared for preserving the possibility of a brilliantly climactic Sunday afternoon. Not because television remains less than agog for the spectacle. It is because of, just maybe, the growing sense that a Ryder Cup place is no longer around the heart of a leading golfer's ambition.

The prodigy McIlroy has already gone on the record quite unequivocally. His obsession is with winning a major, of standing alone on a mountain top of the game. Casey and Rose preferred to chase the money offered by Federal Express rather than return to Europe and win Ryder Cup places in their own right. The Tiger's passion is new and inevitably invites speculation that it has been created not by a change of heart, or mellow reflection, but the most basic of his circumstances.

It is perhaps a groundswell of instinct sufficient to create doubt, especially as so many other traditional high points of the sporting calendar are beginning to list in their claims on the attention of, if not the world, their most exciting protagonists.

The World Cup in South Africa was notable for the brilliant football of Spain – but not the tradition of providing a player who separated himself utterly from all rivals. There was a strong sense that players like Lionel Messi, Fernando Torres and Wayne Rooney, for perhaps different reasons, had been worn down to the point where the World Cup was almost an unwanted extension of their pursuit of honours for the clubs who paid their wages, guaranteed their futures.

Paul Scholes, the most dedicated of professionals, declined Fabio Capello's offer to attempt some ultimate last hurrah, and four years earlier, the greatest of contemporary players, Zinedine Zidane, had to be talked out of international retirement before coming within a stride or two, and one head-butt, of repeating his triumph in Paris eight years earlier.

Maybe similar fears about the Ryder Cup are pitched too strongly. Perhaps McIlroy will catch fire in this moist Welsh battleground. Perhaps the Molinari brothers of Italy will bring brio and fresh passion. Maybe the European favourites, remembering the humiliation of Valhalla and the sight of Boo Weekley charging down a fairway whooping on the back of an imaginary steed, will exact a level of revenge that will guarantee another fierce reaction on American soil in two years time. Who knows, Celtic Manor may just be remembered as the site of the Tiger's winning battle of a wounded ambition to be the greatest golfer in history.

These are not exactly possibilities low on dramatic potential and, no doubt, some of the best reasons for optimism that the Ryder Cup will continue to exert a grip on the imagination of all who love golf. However, it is also true that maybe there has been never been a greater need for these hopes to be realised than here.

The nag is certainly not eased by the contrasting emotions of two generations of infant prodigy. We are told that Sergio Garcia, who found in Ryder Cup action so much relief from his grinding failure to win a major, virtually begged Montgomerie to give him the role of an assistant, so anguished had he been made by the possibility of being reduced to the role of a mere spectator. Meanwhile, McIlroy could hardly have been more candid about the fact that the great contest would always be in the margins of his ambition.

Times change and, of course, so do the people. It is a challenge the Ryder Cup has met triumphantly enough in the past but perhaps it has never before been quite so trenchantly expressed. One thing at least is certain here over the next few days. The Ryder Cup, as never before, needs to be reminded of the very best of its past.

Lawton's great Ryder Cup moments

1969: The Concession

Jack Nicklaus concedes a two-foot putt to Tony Jacklin because, he says, he could not allow a fellow professional the possibility of living for the rest of his life with the knowledge that he had lost a Ryder Cup by such a margin. Nothing, before or since, has matched such grace.

1983: Brilliant Seve

Seve Ballesteros plays a sublime three-wood to halve with Fuzzy Zoeller – a shot for the ages.

1985: Torrance's defining moment

Sam Torrance's match-winning putt at the 18th green to beat Andy North inflicted the first defeat on America in 28 years. It also transformed the live of the urbane man from Largs.

1991: Monty battles in vain

Colin Montgomerie halves with Mark Calcavecchia after trailing by four with four to play. It is in a losing cause, Bernhard Langer missing a tricky putt on his last hole, but none the less unforgettable.

1995: That old magic from Seve

Ballesteros is entering an unshakeable decline but he inspires Europe's victory with his astonishing resilience against Tom Lehmann. Ballesteros cannot hit a fairway but around the green he is Merlin again. He loses by just one hole, but Europe become a different, fighting team.

2006: Clarke's emotional triumph

Five weeks after the death of his wife Heather, Darren Clarke is called back to Ryder Cup action to make an emotional contribution to Europe's victory, proving that however haunting the circumstances sport can sometimes create an island of its own.

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