It still doesn't quite satisfy the question, "Why, exactly, the Ryder Cup?" Is it really the ultimate event in golf? The one with the most power to connect with the sports generalist and even the non-golfer? The one that can be legitimately compared to the Olympics and the World Cup?
Quickly broken down, it's so much hype.
First, unlike the aforementioned extravaganzas, the Ryder Cup is not a worldwide event. Latin America, South America, Asia, Australia, and Africa cannot take part. For that matter, it's a good thing continental Europe got included in 1979. But even as that change added more of an Old World vs. New World dynamic, the Ryder Cup can never be truly global.
Second, on the historical scale, it barely registers on golf's radar. Tiger Woods had a point when he challenged reporters grilling him about his attitude toward the team competition to recite Jack Nicklaus' Ryder Cup record (17-8-3, by the way), only to be met by blank faces. There is no way Woods 13-17-3 record diminishes his 14 majors, just as Ian Poulter's 12-3 record, Sergio Garcia's 16-8-4 or Colin Montgomerie's 20-9-7 do not make up for no majors. A Ryder Cup record alone is not a shortcut to greatness, because the wiring and skill it takes to hold Ryder Cup, no matter how enviable and charismatic that ability might be.
Third, as for the supposed sanctity of having no prize money, the Ryder Cup is all about money. The captaincies especially are lifetime annuities, and the players -- including those who secretly believe there should be formal remuneration -- make out very well in increased endorsements.
OK, points taken. The Ryder Cup is aggressively over-marketed with results that are overvalued. But all that said, there is something ineffably, vitally and undeniably powerful about the Ryder Cup.
Consider three counterpoints:
The lack of history is trumped by a relentless immediacy. The matches seem personal; winner-take-all pitched battles that we can watch in digestible and delicious bites. On Friday through Sunday, and especially Sunday night, the results mean everything and produce the highest degree of exultation, relief, despair and regret. On the following Monday morning, in terms of individual careers and legacies, they mean relatively little. As onlookers, we uncomplainingly accept that bargain.
It fulfills the "real" sport fixation. Before it's played, the Ryder Cup can be analyzed to death, or at least it gives the illusion that it can be. Pairings, captain's picks, order of play, etc., all seem very important. In retrospect, they almost always reveal themselves as fairly arbitrary.
But more importantly, the Ryder Cup satisfies the hunger of general sports fans for something that golf seems to lack -- grit. The suspicion that golf's code of manners and gentility, the absence of physical contact and associated pain, and the way huge purses take the sting out of losing allows professional golfers to be soft and coddled in a way barely worthy of the term pro athlete is widely held. But the Ryder Cup, more than any other golf event, acts as a counter. The emotion and gamesmanship -- all the Ballesteros coughing, Poulter eye-popping and Bradley strutting -- might annoy purists, but many sports fans see it as applying to golf a needed layer of authentic grit. And such an intense atmosphere does palpably increase the pressure. To the point that even those who don't play begin to understand that golf might actually be THE pressure game, one with a margin for error so small for mistakes that can be so big. And that standing up to such a challenge takes all the same right stuff that gets extolled in the big team sports, and maybe more.
- Ah yes, the pressure. Why precisely is there so much? The biggest reason: Harsh, unfair but very real judgment. The great unwashed among the audience cruelly makes the Ryder Cup a referendum on a player's ability to handle the highest heat. "Are you clutch?" is the ultimate question in sports, and the public's (and peers') answer is the one professional athletes, whether they admit it publicly or not, most care about. Which is why being in an arena in which just such a judgment by commentators and the audience is almost the whole point of the competition makes for the heaviest pressure possible.
It's also true that golfers probably more than any other pro athletes hate to be judged by non-peers. Who, they believe, except another player can understand all the variables that go into competing in the most complex game? American golfers, who for so long almost by birthright were collectively considered the world's best, especially resent the imposed reckoning. It adds expectation, gives them more to lose, and seems unfair. It's a factor in why the European teams -- usually underdogs (but not this year) -- seem to enjoy the whole Ryder Cup experience more.
Champions, who despite their records are asked to again prove their heart, are probably the most resentful of what the Ryder Cup represents, but because of who they are, usually manage to meet the moment. But the insecure and the fragile -- God help them. Especially before an audience primed to smell weakness.
That's what the Ryder Cup is really about -- the Coliseum of golf, a tonic for the masses who would otherwise find the game boring. As for purists, it's an intoxicating guilty pleasure. Nothing else so intertwines those two camps, which is the best argument for why the Ryder Cup is golf's ultimate event.