When a sport unites
GOLF is, by its very nature, individualistic.
Winners stand alone on the top shelf of the scoreboard, celebrations are limited to fist-pumps and doffs of the cap, there are no long coach journeys with your teammates and when you’re in a dip in form you can’t take a break and let someone else fill in.
A golfer’s world is insular and self-concerned. On tour, friends become the opposition overnight.
Yet every two years the game goes tribal and produces one of the most intriguing spectacles in global sport – the Ryder Cup.
This year the Americans and Europeans continue their trans-Atlantic rivalry at Medinah Country Club in the Chicago suburbs, with Europe hoping to extend their near-total recent dominance over their cousins from across the pond and the USA banking on home advantage to steer them to victory.
One man who knows a thing or two about the emotions of the event is Swindon golfer David Howell .
The Broome Manor professional was part of consecutive winning teams, in 2004 at Oakland Hills and 2006 at the K Club, scoring a total of three and a half points from five matches - and he explained how even the toughest, stone-hearted golfer can come undone in front of 50,000 fans lining the fairways and millions more watching on TV.
“Like anything in life that’s worth doing, it’s not all easy,” Howell told the Advertiser.
“There’s always a down side or a stress involved with the big things in life – whether it’s your driving test, getting married or a job interview, they’re never just easy things that you breeze through.
“Angst and anxiety revolve around the big things in life and the Ryder Cup is like that from a golfing perspective. I’ve been fortunate to be on two winning teams which are amazing memories and special moments.
“I didn’t necessarily feel out of my depth, because I am a great believer that if you’ve made your way into the team then you’re good enough, but I wasn’t playing well, it was stressful, I was concerned about letting my team down, I didn’t know how I was going to cope with the pressure of playing in front of so many people, partisan crowds, I was stressed and there was a lot of anxiety added to a lot of excitement and adrenaline.
“I came through both pretty well and got three-and-a-half points out of five, but there will be many players feeling the same.
“We’ve only got one rookie on our side (Nicolas Colsaerts), America have got four (Jason Dufner, Keegan Bradley, Brandt Snedeker and Webb Simpson) so they’ll feel it but they’re more than capable of coping – two of them have won Majors.
“It certainly gets your attention and when it’s over you think ‘phew’, and that was with me coming through unscathed in terms of how I played. It’s not only not letting down your 11 teammates, although I think it is predominantly that.
“We’re so individual every week and then we’re partnered with people and added to that an awful lot of people are watching with a particular result in mind. “Normally, even when watching a Major, they don’t really mind who wins – it might be they’d rather be European or American but it’s not 40,000 people screaming for one person, and for the Ryder Cup they are.
“That makes it all the more special when it goes right and all the more worse when it doesn’t.”
Traditionally, making the journey across the Atlantic has been a significant stumbling block for the away side in a Ryder Cup, particularly for the Europeans.
However, with many of captain Jose Maria Olazabal’s team currently living and playing in the States, Howell is convinced that home advantage is an out-of-date concept.
“They are two very different situations,” he said. “My first one was fighting against the crowd – if you hole a putt the cheer’s not so big and you know you’re fighting against the majority.
“That’s different but you use that to your advantage. The big thing about winning away from home is that the Ryder Cup is so tight nowadays that winning away from home is a fantastic achievement and more difficult to do.
“It’s bigger and you know you’re going to come home as bigger heroes if you can do it. It almost takes the pressure off a little bit. The home side has the massive crowd, probably a bit more weight of expectation and the slight advantage of playing on a course they perhaps know a bit better.
“Expectations are never good in sport, let alone in golf, and I think the burden of expectation of being the home team almost levels up the home support. I don’t think it’s got, in today’s day and age, a big bearing.
“So many European players live in America, they’ve been playing in America trying to win the FedEx Cup and most of our top players in the Ryder Cup play in America and have homes there. Times have changed a little bit from 20 or 30 years ago when it was very much a case of 12 Europeans going over there for only the second or third time that year.
“I think the home advantage thing, certainly for us going to America, has diminished – it’s not as scary a prospect. What is interesting is when the Americans come over here into conditions which are not as nice, on softer courses which we are definitely more used to.
“That probably plays into our hands a little bit so after analysing it a little bit I don’t think it has a big bearing.”
After victory at Celtic Manor in 2010, Olazabal and Europe go into this year’s competition looking to preserve their champions status, and they have been given extra incentive to retain the trophy by the memory of golfing stalwart Seve Ballesteros.
The Spaniard, a veteran of eight Ryder Cups as a player and one as captain, passed away 16 months ago. In his 33-year professional career he had become one of the most loved golfers on both sides of the Atlantic.
His partnership in Ryder Cups with Olazabal, which claimed a remarkable 12 points from a possible 15, remains the most successful in the event’s history and the European team will give a poignant tribute to the former world number one by dressing in his image –navy blue trousers and sweaters and white shirts - for their singles matches on Sunday.
Howell expects Ballesteros’ spirit to spread itself over Medinah’s picturesque landscape throughout the coming days.
“It’s the first Ryder Cup that Seve has not been alive for,” he said.
“That will be getting mentioned, and all that will be used to try to inspire the team – not that they need inspiring. Once they get there and there’s 50,00 people there, you know you’re doing something special.”
So, with the competition teeing off on Friday, soon our many questions can be answered.
Can Nicolas Colsaerts really out-drive Bubba Watson? Will Tiger Woods out-score Rory McIlroy? Will Olazabal out-think Davis Love III?
It’s time to settle in for golf’s biennial spectacular.