It’s no secret that I don’t like golf. I even wrote a column a year ago arguing that it’s not really a sport. So it comes as a bit of a surprise even to myself that last weekend I not only showed some interest in the happenings of the Ryder Cup, I even watched some of it on TV.
Where professional golf in general leaves me cold, I found myself warming to the action as it unfolded in damp and rainy Wales because, I think, of two differences between this tournament and most of the other ones I flick past while surfing the sports channels.
The first is the “clash of civilizations” feel of the Ryder Cup: Europe vs. the U.S.; The Old Continent against The New World.
Beyond the infamous Tiger Woods, I would struggle to name any of the world’s top golfers, even after having just watched some of them a few days back. Most of the sports that catch my eye on a regular basis are team sports, and for good reason.
As a fan, I can identify with and feel part of a team even if I might be stuck on the couch watching from home. Even the best players in team sports ultimately play for the team, both for and with fans, as one. I can be impressed by an individual’s skills on the PGA circuit, but there isn’t that feeling of equality and brotherhood. Individual sportsmen play for their own personal success and glory, not for me.
As a citizen of Europe, it was hard not to feel proud seeing these golfers fighting for the Ryder Cup under the banner of my continent. Stripped of the distraction of prize money, the players had nothing more to lose than their own honor, and the honor of the millions at home that they represented. Whether I like golf or not, they were playing for me.
So even though my understanding of the finer points of golf is sketchy, and even though I couldn’t pick a single one of the European golfers out of a crowd, when the Ryder Cup comes around, I know who’s on my side, and whose side I’m on.
The second factor motivating my interest was match play, the scoring system used for the Cup.
Most professional golf tournaments use stroke play, where players aim to go around a course in the minimum number of total shots. Players compete with a leaderboard rather than directly with the golfer who may be accompanying them on any particular round. Match play instead pits the player directly against the opponent playing next to him as they both try to win each hole by sinking the ball in a lower number of shots.
It may be because I am a golf heretic, but as a sports fan, I just can’t get excited about stroke play. I’m used to sports where opponents clash face-to-face, where psychological and physical battles are fought out mano-a-mano. In stroke play, the two leaders on any one day could be on opposite sides of the course.
To me, the concept would be a bit like deciding a tennis match not by who won the most sets, but by who won the most points. It certainly rewards consistency, but consistency is boring.
In stroke play a golfer could come out and play a terrible first three holes, perhaps ending up four or five over par, and suddenly his tournament is over. In match play he could come back from worse than that, thrilling spectators as he battles back into contention. The tennis analogy is good here again: I’ve watched many matches where a player has lost a set to love, but has shown great force of will to come back and win.
In this regard, the Ryder Cup made sense to me. I could flick on the TV and watch two players compete against each for a single hole, and that was enough to keep me watching for a couple more.
It is a shame that the tournament is only played every two years, and that there are so few other competitions in golf that work on the same format. Until then, my newfound pride for being European and my interest in the sport will undoubtedly vanish as I return to my diet of soccer and motor-racing.