DiazJuly 11, 2010

Afflict The Comfortable

Other than the respective PGAs of America and Europe selling as many generically logoed $80 golf shirts as possible, I've long wondered about the purpose of the Ryder Cup.

In terms of historical significance -- to the separate sides and the individual players -- it's a trumped-up event. As Tiger Woods once pointed out, only the nerdiest of dimpleheads knows Jack Nicklaus' Ryder Cup record. At the same time, it's fueled by undeniable psychodrama. European DNA craves any opportunity to see the cocky New World upstart fixed with some retroactive Old World dominance. Of course, after Europe began a winning streak in 1985, it was America's jingoism meter that started spiking. The 7-7-1 parity between the two sides since the nations of the continent were incorporated in 1979 gives the rivalry that much more heat.

Blessed with the more intimate tension of match play along with the emotional stake that ensues on a closely bonded team, and with nearly every shot over three days scrutinized by self-proclaimed choke expert Johnny Miller, and it's the Ryder Cup that is widely accepted as golf's most torturous pit of pressure. Contrived or not, the chance to watch a representative sampling of the world's best fighting off the fear of staining their legacy is golf's guilty pleasure. Unfair? No doubt. But it's that inequity that gives the Ryder Cup a useful purpose.

I'll call it elite player development. It's ironic, because more good players are being developed than ever. With academies, the American Junior Golf Association, minor-league tours and all manner of gurus and fitness regimens, there is little doubt that young players coming up today are farther along than their predecessors.

But will they be champions? So far, a lot of the highly ballyhooed have been only pretty good. It seems that something at the crucial end of the prospective-champion learning curve is missing.

Basically, it's hunger. There's too much prize and endorsement money, and not enough do-or-die moments. Even for those who pass every test, the final motivation to do what it takes to separate from the pack has become problematic. Such a sacrifice made more sense in the old days, when not winning meant existing on the tattered fringe of pro golf. It can't be an accident that Hagen, Sarazen, Nelson, Hogan, Snead, Palmer, Casper, Player, Trevino, Ballesteros and others came from the lower economic rungs and fought their way up. And it's interesting that even in earlier days, the best players from rich backgrounds didn't fare as well, or at least as long. Lawson Little flamed out early. Frank Stranahan didn't reach the top. Great as he was, Bobby Jones couldn't sustain a competitive career beyond the age of 28.

Nicklaus came from relative privilege. But his innate love of competition kept him seeking the next mountain. For Nicklaus, it was about becoming as good as he could be. Tom Watson, a product of the country club, exhibits the same qualities at 60. So, of course, does Woods, who wasn't rich but came up in an era in which talented juniors were brought along by the system. It's interesting that none of these three ever made a big deal about the Ryder Cup. Their dedication to the truest tests of golf greatness wouldn't allow them to buy into the hype.

But champions are by definition exceptions, and possibly rarer as the golf world becomes softer. Give most human beings comfort, and stagnation ensues. I would submit that today's young stars, talented as they are, need to overcompensate for the decadence of their era. And that's where the Ryder Cup comes in.

"The Ryder Cup is by far the greatest pressure a player will ever face," says U.S. captain Corey Pavin, a mere mortal compared to Nicklaus, Watson and Woods, but a major champion nonetheless. "As a player, that's what I want, to see how I perform under the most difficult circumstances. That's how you get better."

Pavin says he hasn't made this pitch to his prospective younger players, and hopes he doesn't have to. Deep down, the Dustin Johnsons and Rickie Fowlers need to understand that the week in Wales -- win or lose -- is an important and rare chance for real growth. Those who truly want to be champions will be playing with a purpose.