Leading Article: Golfers show Britain a way out of the bunker

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The Independent Online
JOSE-MARIA OLAZABAL may have not a drop of British blood, yet the Spaniard's victory in the US Masters has been greeted here with almost as much enthusiasm as if he hailed from Potters Bar. Where golf is concerned, a nation that usually takes pleasure in the sporting failures of its continental neighbours undergoes nothing short of a character transformation. Suddenly, even in the most xenophobic shire clubhouse, we are all Europeans.

It is tempting to speculate that normal prejudices are mesmerised by the strange practice of watching a small ball being stroked around five miles of fairway and popped into a hole every few hundred yards. But the British magnanimity that is unique to golf has a more mundane explanation. It lies in the Ryder Cup, which began as a battle between golfing giants - Britain and the United States - only to deteriorate into national humiliation, as the Americans unfailingly trounced their Atlantic cousins.

In 1979, the Europeans were called in to help the losing side. Since then British golfers - who still predominate in the team - have enjoyed Ryder Cup victories bolstered by the likes of Olazabal, Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer. As Denis Healey said of the Conservative Party, 'their Europeanism is nothing but imperialism with an inferiority complex'.

If Europe could offer a few good cricketers, England might be able to salvage a little pride against its former colonies. A European tennis team could allow Britain to claim its own modern heroes instead of dusting off memories of Fred Perry and Virginia Wade. However, unlike in the Ryder Cup, few British players could expect to be selected.

In other sports, the possibilities are less encouraging. International football is rooted in competition between European nations that are unlikely to bury their differences. Football has yet to emulate rugby's British Lions in creating a team from all the nations of these islands. True, Ally MacLeod's 'Tartan Army' was called 'British' during the 1978 World Cup. But in abject defeat it quickly became 'Scottish' again. And waving the Irish tricolour for Jack Charlton's World Cup team this summer may be too much for even the most open-minded British fan.