Business Day

The Ryder Cup: when golf becomes football


L et’s face it, the Majors may have the history, tradition, and careerdefi­ning glory, but none is more fun or intriguing to watch than the Ryder Cup. The match play format, over-the-top crowds, adversaria­l confrontat­ions, indescriba­ble pressure ... forget Augusta and all the Majors — nothing in golf compares with the Ryder Cup.

The format ratchets up the intensity and the confrontat­ional nature of the event — the stuff you never get in normal tournament play. Those who have played, or captained, agree that this is the most pressured golf setting of their lives.

Nick Faldo, one of the Ryder Cup greats, said the Ryder Cup was the only time his stomach churned for an entire 18 holes on the golf course. “Your success or failure affects 11 others and the press on both sides is ready to pounce on your shortcomin­gs. If you choke in a normal tournament, it doesn’t deflate the hopes of an entire team, country or continent,” Faldo said.

All players say this is the most nervous, must cutting pressure they ever felt on a golf course. Blood and oxygen run out. It can be suffocatin­g.

It’s palpable for viewers too, and that brings us to the 13th man in the competitio­n: the crowds. Going three instead of two years meant that staging of this year’s matches — instead of in the middle of a pandemic without spectators — will bring about 40,000 fans to Whistling Straits this weekend.

And, at the Ryder Cup, the fans are everything. They bring excitement. They bring the energy that can swing a match or sway an entire day of competitio­n. The most ungolf golf tournament in the world brings camaraderi­e, rambunctio­usness and worldclass banter to a sport normally played in hushed tones.

For three days, Ryder Cup fans make golf feel like football, shaking a normally staid sport and transformi­ng a quiet golf course into a packed stadium. And that makes watching the Ryder Cup twice the fun.

Strategy is another factor, and the effect a captain can have on their team lies mostly in finding the right chemistry for the two-man games and setting the correct order, which is why the captains’ picks are critical.

With an additional year in which to qualify, the unpreceden­ted Covid-19 pandemic delay affected the compositio­n of both teams who will square off this weekend.

The number of automatic qualifiers for Team USA was reduced from eight to six, which gave US Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker six picks, two more than Jim Furyk in 2018.

With the qualifying process for Team Europe frozen from when the pandemic struck until January 2021, the automatic qualifiers were much the same if it had been finalised in 2020, with the months of January and February added. Four players qualified via the European Points List, five via the World Points List and captain Padraig Harrington made three wildcard picks to round out his team after the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championsh­ip.

When comparing the official world rankings in August 2020 with the rankings in August 2021, the Americans surpassed the Europeans by far in taking advantage of the year-long extension. Eight of the 12 players on the US side improved their world ranking positions while only five Europeans improved their standings over the last year. And the player who made the most strides across both teams was Jordan Spieth.

Spieth would have been an unlikely captain’s pick at 66th in the world rankings in August 2020, but one year, eight top10s and a win later, he was an easy pick at No 14. And who wouldn’t want a guy with a personal record of 7-5-2? Harris English also played his way onto his first US Ryder Cup team as a captain’s pick after six top-10s and two victories that boosted him from 53rd to 11th in the world rankings.

Team Europe is entering this year’s Ryder Cup as the defending champion after its 17½ to 10½ win at Le Golf National in 2018. Viktor Hovland was their biggest mover, jumping from No 31 to No 15 in the world to earn an automatic qualifying spot alongside world No 2 John Rahm, among others.

And, of course, Harrington picked The Postman.

Show Ian Poulter a team room with Europe posted on the door and he will find a locker inside that contains the magical powers of Clark Kent’s phone box. His record takes some beating — 15 points from 22 matches and undefeated in the singles — and is higher than that of Seve Ballestero­s, Faldo, Colin Montgomeri­e and Justin Rose.

The wait between cups always builds the anticipati­on and hype, but the 43rd edition has finally rolled around. The extra-long wait has added to the excitement because there is nothing like the Ryder Cup. Chills. Butterflie­s in the stomach. Hair rising on the back of the head ... and that’s just me!

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