Ryder Cup rose from obscurity and may soon end in oblivion

If only to give younger readers some idea of how much this sporting life has changed, the Ryder Cup of 1975, played for at Laurel Valley, Pennsylvania, came and went without causing much of a stir in the toy departments of Fleet Street. No big previews. Scant coverage. "Not sure that it's worth you being there," I remember my sports editor of the time saying.

If only to give younger readers some idea of how much this sporting life has changed, the Ryder Cup of 1975, played for at Laurel Valley, Pennsylvania, came and went without causing much of a stir in the toy departments of Fleet Street. No big previews. Scant coverage. "Not sure that it's worth you being there," I remember my sports editor of the time saying.

I got to Laurel Valley that September only because it was, more or less, on the route to Manila where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were about to engage in what turned out to be an epic contest for the heavyweight championship. Seeking a line on developments preceding my arrival, I scanned the sports pages of the most prominent print in the area. Tucked away was a story that began as follows: "A team of professional golfers representing the United States warmed up yesterday for a biennial match against Great Britain and Ireland..." Syndicated columnists, whose fame exceeded local circulation limits, showed no interest.

A few days earlier, I'd met with a senior employee of the New York Police Department for the purpose of finding out whether the United States had a problem with spectator violence in sport similar to our own at the time. Opening one of many large metal drawers, mostly marked "homicide", he drew out a thin green file containing two sheets of paper. "We don't have your problem," he said. "That's about it then," I said. "Not unless you want to think about some nut with a gun taking out a high profile sports figure like Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, Joe Namath," he replied. "It's one of my big fears."

At Laurel Valley I could see how easy this would be to accomplish. There was no security to speak of, nor, for that matter, many spectators. People came and went, many mystified by the proceedings. "What is this Ryder Cup?" one of the volunteer drivers asked. Excitement rose when Brian Barnes twice defeated Nicklaus in the singles, however the response back home approximated to a yawn. "Keep it tight," I was told after communicating the fact of another crushing US victory.

We're not talking ancient here; not going back to when Ryder Cup teams crossed the Atlantic by boat and caddies dressed as though they'd been recruited from a food line. Only 25 years.

To quote A J Liebling, which is the least I can do in return for his example, the one thing about sport upon which most veterans are in agreement is that it used to be better. In common with their brethren in other sporting fields, older golf writers are persistent howlers after antiquity. This takes in a time when the Ryder Cup was pretty much a jolly and of no great interest outside the golfing community.

The difference now is enormously obvious, brought about by the formation of a team drawn from the whole of Europe, television and rampant commercialism. The Ryder Cup has become a vehicle for egoism, not least that of those commentators and writers who seem to regard objectivity in these matters as an admission of treason. One columnist crassly suggested this week that there is no point in holding the Ryder Cup unless it is allowed to embrace a hard-nosed disregard for normal golfing etiquette. Anybody who thinks that way is contributing to sport's downfall.

A personal point of view, one nobody is obliged to share, is that the Ryder Cup may not survive much beyond this decade. Hyped out of all proportion, ludicrously described as the greatest team event in sport, its future depends entirely on whether Europe can maintain a challenge.

The impression given by a number of the American players, including Tiger Woods, who has never shown much affection for the matchplay format, is that they would happily consign the Ryder Cup to history. I guess Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson never felt that way but the time we live in is different.

As for the idea that the Ryder Cup will grip all America this weekend, let's go back just a little bit. On the morning after Europe won back the trophy at Oak Hills, New York, in 1995, I took a train from Rochester to Albany, a journey of about three hours. None of the passengers to whom I spoke even knew that the match had taken place.

It's easy to form exaggerated thoughts about these things. Loss of the America's Cup was supposed to have plunged our former transatlantic colonies into gloom. "Didn't see any suicides on the A train," a friend said. He holds the sure and certain belief that the Ryder Cup is overrated.

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