Patriotism seems to be last refuge of an American Ryder Cup captain

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The Independent Online

Shortly after the US Ryder Cup captain, Hal Sutton, turned to the wall in a large room filled with grown-up men and woman so they could get a better view of the American flag on the back of his shirt, I opened the conversation that by yesterday morning was being reproduced on every sports page and TV bulletin across America.

Shortly after the US Ryder Cup captain, Hal Sutton, turned to the wall in a large room filled with grown-up men and woman so they could get a better view of the American flag on the back of his shirt, I opened the conversation that by yesterday morning was being reproduced on every sports page and TV bulletin across America.

Sutton, who is the son of a rich Louisiana oil family, said: "Y'all see that flag? Anything I can summon up, that's what we're going to do." It did not, to be perfectly honest, seem like precisely the action or the form of words guaranteed to calm fears that when the 35th Ryder Cup gets under way here tomorrow, the nightmare of the 17th hole at Brookline Country Club five years ago will at some point be revisited.

Sutton didn't like my question at all, y'all. In fact he said it made me sound like a bad marriage partner, a blistering assessment from a man who has been down the aisle four times. He said America had apologised for five years for the invasion of the hole, and the overexcited, xenophobic galleries and the gross insults to, particularly, Colin Montgomerie... "so y'all need to forget about that".

It was a little easier said than done in the emotion-charged wake of Sutton's latest declaration of patriotism - and the memory of his own pumped-up contribution to the floodtide of excessive feeling that swamped the course in Massachusetts when the Americans produced their pulverising last-day performance in the singles.

As a matter of detail the question which so sorely provoked Sutton into what one local radio station said was a "rightful scolding" - and is printed out in the official Ryder Cup transcripts - was this: "You said that you're committing yourself and your teammates to a victory, and you would use anything legitimately within your powers. In the past this ambition on both sides of the Atlantic has produced emotions that some have felt were not in the spirit of golf. Are you concerned that the need to win might produce some side-effects like that?"

No more apologies, boomed the man from Louisiana, but of course, worryingly, the search here is not for sackcloth and ashes but the acceptance of dangers these next few days that in some American eyes have not been entirely extinguished by the decision of the Michigan hosts to put on-course alcohol under strict limits.

Beer drinkers who might have been inclined to inquire about Monty's favourite brand of sports bra - if he hadn't shed 36 pounds and arrived here so sleek that he might be on a modelling assignment - have to leave the tents and walk across the road from the neighbouring north course. The calculation is that this sobering-up time will be sufficient to take the old hard edge off the problem.

However, it has to be said that on a day of dreamy fall beauty here, one steward reported that the most persistent question he has faced is simply: "How do you get to the north course, buddy?"

Where Sutton has been in such sharp contrast to the tone and the mood of his European rivals is in his declaration that while he has some control over his players - "let me emphasise, some control" - he didn't have any control over anybody else in the world.

This was not quite the position of the late Payne Stewart, who yielded a hole to the embattled Monty in Brookline and said, with some anguish, that the scenes witnessed that day made a mockery of the game. "If that kind of thing continues in golf, I will not be interested in playing publicly the game I love," said Payne disconsolately with a sea of stars and stripes in the background. "It comes down to that. We are supposed to be celebrating a great victory in a great tournament but right now I don't feel like celebrating anything." Much more in that spirit has been most of the European noises here over the last 24 hours.

Montgomerie, the prime victim of Brookline, said yesterday: "I think Brookline has been spoken about an awful lot and probably over-analysed and written about. I don't think we're going to have that problem here. I don't think Brookline will appear again. I think the world is a different, better place since then."

Europe's sole French player, Thomas Levet, is taking a similar line despite the fact that in the wake of the invasion of Iraq he was barracked on an American course for his government's refusal to participate. "I think it is over," said Levet. "It just happened on a day that was very warm and beer was flowing and the guys were next to a tent. It's something I have forgiven.

"When a situation is tense like that, some things you cannot explain or understand. It was something directed to me and to my country, but you can forgive these things because sometimes people have to express their feelings. I feel I can deal with anything over the next few days.

"I put pressure on myself as much practising alone in England as I do here at the Ryder Cup. I'm on the range hitting like the first tee shot at the Ryder Cup or the last putt at the British Open. So when the situation comes, as it is doing now, I've been there a lot of times. It's as if I've played the Ryder Cup 6,000 times lately. I hit that tee shot thinking about how the crowd would respond.

"I've seen people smiling on the tee, not saying a word. I've seen the crowd jumping from their seats and going completely mad. I've seen people yelling at me. I've seen people cheering for me. I've practised all of these things, so I'm kind of ready for any situation at the moment."

Perhaps the most elaborate of all attempts to defuse the legacy of Brookline has come from the amiable Dubliner Pedraig Harrington. While so much of the golf world recoiled from the events of '99, Harrington apparently saw it as an extraordinary confirmation of the new status of the Ryder Cup. It showed, he said, that finally the Americans cared.

"It was a sign of respect to us, that they thought we were worthy opposition, whereas I'm sure in past years it was hard for them to motivate themselves, but they were motivated that day. It's a great sign for us, and you've got to hand it to the Europeans who had gone in 85, 87, 89, 91, 93, 95, those years they made the Ryder Cup what it is and brought it to the level it was in 1999 when both teams could be considered equal.

"When you think about it, it was that they got overexcited. Isn't that great?" Sutton certainly thinks so. He thanked the Irishman for his bizarre comments yesterday. Jose Maria Olazabal didn't think so when the American team and their wives poured over the green and his putting line at the 17th after Justin Leonard had drained the winner. It was as though Olazabal didn't exist. Sutton says now that he wants his players to be themselves and act like gentlemen.

It is a strangely mixed signal for anyone who was in Brookline. Who were the cream of American golf on that day of infamy? They were golfers who broke the rules, the etiquette and spirit of the game which had so enriched them. All Hal Sutton has been required to do here is underline the old values of the game as the Ryder Cup returns to America for the first time since Brookline. Instead he turned his back and showed his flag.

He seemed to be saying that patriotism is the issue. It isn't. The question is about manners and decency. Ultimately in golf, it will always be about that.