The Ryder Cup: Bunker mentality in battle of Valderrama

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We ought to be indebted to Seve Ballesteros for pointing out last week: "The Ryder Cup is not a war." This information will help to disperse any misunderstanding we might have developed over the past 18 months while observing Europe's Ryder Cup captain organising his troops; sorry, his team. In comparison, Napoleon's assembly of the Imperial Guard was slapdash.

Ballesteros began by berating the European tour for not allowing him a choice of more than two wild cards in his team of 12 and thereafter was to be regularly seen and heard ranting at the stars to qualify as of right and not rely on his favour. He delayed the announcement of his selection until the very last moment bringing forth cries even from seasoned campaigners as staunch as Nick Faldo to be put out of their misery.

And when it came to the controversial decision to exclude his countryman Miguel Angel Martin from the team he showed the full ruthlessness of his command. Martin, who had worked hard to qualify legitimately for the event, wanted more time to recover from an injury but Ballesteros was scornfully unsympathetic. It is a hard general who shoots his wounded a month before the battle.

If he is like this with his own side, what will he be like with the enemy? I beg his pardon. We must remember that the Ryder Cup is not a war. We must also ensure, he adds, that sportsmanship is the number one consideration at Valderrama. Be that as it may, it does take some effort to separate Ballesteros from a military image. The warrior may have laid down his arms to take up the baton of leadership but he brandishes it like a broadsword. And the thought of him plotting his team's strategy from behind the lines is by no means the least fascinating aspect of the week ahead.

Far from being a war, the Ryder Cup has been a massacre for most of its 70 years, with the British as the victims. Indeed, it is only in the seven matches since 1983 that this biennial confrontation has consistently succeeded in elevating itself to a level at which comparison with fierce conflict of a more equal nature has been possible.

That was the year in which Ballesteros made his debut. European players had been drafted in to bolster the struggling Great Britain and Ireland team four years earlier but it was not until Ballesteros's arrival that we saw an uplift in the fortunes of the old continent. The score in those seven matches stands at three wins each and one draw and Seve has been a force throughout, even at Oak Hill two years ago when he couldn't hit a fairway but struck every inspirational chord available.

He is the reason the Ryder Cup is making its debut in Spain, its first appearance in continental Europe, and this breaking of new ground coincides with the most representative European team yet to face the Americans. Apart from having the first non-British Isles captain, the team has its most mongrel appearance.

We boast the sons of Denmark, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales. Out of 12 good men, there are nine nations represented - two of them recently devolved - so the continent has an unprecedented spread of interest in the the weekend's drama at Valderrama. It goes further than that. I can think of no other European team in a major event that even faintly compares as a genuinely representative body. It is a wonder that Seve's boys are not sponsored by the Single Currency.

That is not the end of the singular nature of this tournament. Generally in team sports, the United States lock horns with very few rivals outside north America. Certainly, they venture into no collective confrontation that is laced with as much importance as this and the experience is more likely to weigh heavier as a serious national adventure upon them than it is on Europeans to whom international competition is commonplace.

Inevitably, this rush of patriotism has gone too far. The 1991 meeting at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, was labelled by the Americans as "The War on the Shore" and certain of their players responded even to the extent of wearing forage caps. The hooting and hollering that accompanied their narrow win on that occasion and the outbreak of the odd spat, Ballesteros and Paul Azinger were involved in one, signified the need for a toning down.

This has been achieved and, like his European counterpart, the US captain, Tom Kite, has been at pains to emphasise the fun element of the event. However, I doubt if fun will feature in the final locker-room exhortations and it will be difficult for any player to survive the anthems and flags of the opening ceremony without being overwhelmed by the imperative that he's there to do the business for Uncle Sam, or whoever is the European equivalent; Uncle Helmut, I suppose.

And uniforms fashioned mainly from the finest cashmere may hang like chain-mail when the going gets grim. As a slow, deliberate sequence of actions, each requiring the utmost in concentration and precise execution, golf presents pressures that are difficult when performed for one's own benefit. The transformation from what is the most individual of games into a national duty doesn't fit well with everyone's character.

It was the burden of their country's expectations that, I suspect, led to the Americans' downfall in the last match at Oak Hill. The US led 9- 7 going into the 12 singles matches on the final day and there was little reason to suppose they would not finish the job. But the anticipation of the spectators rose from their ranks like steam and you could practically smell the home-team's jitters as they were mown down by the Europeans.

They won't carry that particular burden this weekend but the full weight might not be transferred to the home team because we don't quite know how the Valderrama galleries will shape up. They may not be as clamourous as the Belfry crowd and the atmosphere could be more relaxed.

It is to the Europeans' advantage that they know the course so well. Kite attempted to take as many of his team as possible on a familiarisation trip just before The Open in July, but only four made it - Fred Couples, Davis Love, Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods. I can't confirm the report that when they reached there they found that Bernhard Langer had put the European team's towels on all the best sun-loungers, but Kite does acknowledge a bigger than usual home advantage.

Despite the higher rate of individual accomplishment among the American team, it may well be the singles round that leads to their undoing once more. However unwarlike the captains want it to be, that is where the cool heads and steady hands will count.

The Ryder Cup has become one of the great sporting events of our age precisely because of the appeal of its hand-to-hand combat. For all the game's unique chivalry, being fiercely polite to each other doesn't disguise the chilling need to overcome your opponents.

As Seve says, it is not war. But in that bright future when wars are finally eradicated, occasions like this will be a useful guide to what they were like.