Peter Corrigan: Drama that can't be put in the deep freeze

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The Independent Online

Some take it a touch too literally but the old cliché that sport is a metaphor for war is not outrageously wrong. When real war breaks out, however, all metaphors are well advised to run like hell. It was that instinct plus various amounts of sympathy, respect, and the blinding truth that the horrors of 11 September had showered it with irrelevance, that led to the postponement of the 2001 Ryder Cup.

Some take it a touch too literally but the old cliché that sport is a metaphor for war is not outrageously wrong. When real war breaks out, however, all metaphors are well advised to run like hell. It was that instinct plus various amounts of sympathy, respect, and the blinding truth that the horrors of 11 September had showered it with irrelevance, that led to the postponement of the 2001 Ryder Cup.

It was unarguably the right thing to do. Unfortunately, there were two mistakes involved in the decision. The first was to expect the event to carry the same vitality and appeal once the year had rolled around. The second mistake, loosely bound to the first, concerns the composition of the teams. At the time, I was fully in agreement with retaining the line-ups as they were at the time. It seemed only right, proper and fair. They'd all worked so hard to earn their selection.

But it was fanciful, not to say naïve, to think we could deep-freeze the occasion and its participants and that 12 months later they would all emerge from the microwave and carry on as if nothing had happened.

Plenty has happened, not least to some of the players, whose form has suffered during the year and who, instead of bouncing with enthuasism and anticipation as they were a year ago, have been approaching the date with increasing dread.

The strange thing is that we wouldn't have dreamed of making such a decision had it been a football match. We would have expected the two teams to turn up the following year with whatever personnel they favoured at the time.

While it is true that football sides of any code are far more transient than a Ryder Cup team, which takes over a year to compile under strict guidelines, the principle is roughly the same.

If I remember rightly, the feeling at the time was that although postponement was justified it would be unfair to rob the players of an honour which they had worked so hard to achieve. There is absolutely no doubt that it would have been unfair, but we hardly need reminding that there was a lot of real tragedy going around at the time.

With the assistance of our old friend hindsight, we can now recognise that once postponement was favoured over outright cancellation – which would have inflicted a four-year gap between matches instead of the three-year pause we've now had – it would have been more sensible to allow the opposing sides to report back with freshened teams.

How those teams would have differed is another argument but it would have avoided the fate of certain players whose guaranteed place seems to have weighed them down like a boulder on the shoulders.

Players like Hal Sutton have suffered grievously. Referred to as the "Bear Apparent" to Jack Nicklaus when he won the US PGA 20 years ago, Sutton has had a long career to which the description "switchback" would seem inadequate. But no matter how accustomed he is to riding out the storm, his recent slump to 121st in the world is not certain to bring him to The Belfry in good fettle. And he will be uncomfortably aware that this is no time to be letting down Old Glory.

At 141st, Europe's Lee Westwood is in no better shape and his frame of mind was summed up after another disappointing European Tour experience in Crans-sur-Sierre two weekends ago. "I'll be glad when the Ryder Cup is over and everyone stops talking about it," he snapped. This is not the bulldog spirit we are looking for but his demeanour betrays a level of stress that, I venture, would not have been as destructive to his game had the teams been scrapped last September.

This is not to say Westwood, Sutton or a few of the others struggling for form would have played any better if they were vying for new selection and not trying to justify an old one. But at least they would have been able to suffer away from the spotlight.

The carrying over of the same teams has another, perhaps more serious, downside. As we have seen, tracking the form of the Ryder Cup players over the past few months has produced a depressingly negative build-up to the event on both sides of the Atlantic.

We would not have avoided the constant company of Colin Montgomerie's back problems but our anticipation would have been much more upbeat had we been witnessing a race for team places by in-form players.

Much of the attraction of the Ryder Cup has been the enthralling battle for points during the summer and before the final qualifying tournament at the end of August. In the absence of that extra spice to the proceedings, many of the recent Tour events have lacked appeal and have been notable only for the struggles of those in the team endeavouring to re-discover last year's form.

Justin Rose is the most glaring example of a player who should have been featuring in Ryder Cup headlines. He was miles away from qualifying last year but his spectacular improvement this season would have catapulted him into the team.

Jose Maria Olazabal is another who was way out of contention last year but whose form has taken a distinct swing for the better. Olazabal's presence would have been a great boost to the prospects of an exciting match. Neither have we been able to enjoy the usual lively debates about the wild-card choices facing the rival captains. Sam Torrance's selections last year were Sergio Garcia and Jesper Parnevik.

Garcia would have qualified in his own right this year but Parnevik is another whose form has fled. There was even talk that he might declare himself injured in order to give his captain the opportunity to pick an in-form replacement. I don't think that would be at all in the spirit of the occasion – if it was I would have welcomed a call-up for Nick Faldo.

The brutal fact is that we are not coming fresh to the tournament and we must hope that the expectation level will increase when the players arrive at The Belfry in the next day or two.

And what about the players? Will they feel the impetus of normal years? As the adversaries gather beneath the flags of Europe and the US for the opening ceremony at the Belfry on Friday, I have no doubt they will experience a similar tingling of the nerve ends that has assailed most of those who have played in this unique tournament.

But although the delay will not have removed the rare fear of letting down the team it must have softened the ultra-competitive context of the encounter. The anniversary of 9:11 having only just passed, I cannot imagine the prospect of beating the Americans carries anything remotely like the same incentive for the Europeans.

One satisfying by-product of that feeling ought also to be a tempering of the over-eager patriotism in the crowd which has marred previous Ryder Cups.

Many sporting fixtures were cancelled or postponed at this time last year but none were as internationally as important as this, nor did they have to wait so long to be re-staged. It may have restored a proper perspective and we can concentrate on the golf. This all seems to promise a very solemn weekend, but from a purely golf point of view it may not be the worse for it and we may be surprised by a thrilling and closely-fought match.

As for the players fearful that their form will let their side down, I trust the captains will remind them that the uniqueness of this match stems from its format and the change of pressure that team-play brings.

No player demonstrates the detrimental effect this can have better than the greatest of them all, Tiger Woods, whose Ryder Cup record is very unimpressive. If it can have that effect on him, it can have the reverse effect on someone who has been struggling. This Ryder Cup could surprise us all.