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The Ryder Cup underscores golf's biggest problem

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Scott Taetsch/PGA of America

October 04, 2023

ROME — Rory McIlroy bounced like a bobblehead on a trampoline, a man too joyous to worry about rhythm or pretense. Next to him was Shane Lowry, who had been pounding his chest or screaming to the heavens for the better part of three days, including now. They were standing inside the team bus, singing and basking in one of the battle hymns their fellow Europeans showered on them, enjoying the spoils of victory that were not given but earned. And that’s certainly part of what we saw. Except two years earlier the same event had brought McIlroy to tears and made Lowry turn to his then captain and apologize for letting him down on Sunday, an event whose outcome made the 2021 European club struggle to find the words to explain a result that everyone expected besides them. They are opposite reactions spurred by the same sentiment, caused only when you love something to your core.

It is an attitude that runs perpendicular to the reports of player protest over money on the American side, and makes for a snackable explanation for the European victory at Marco Simone, and maybe that’s true. But the emotional response the Ryder Cup conjures underscores a more holistic problem in professional golf: One week every two years, golf and its players (some of them, at least) care too much, and for most of the other 103 weeks, we don’t care enough.

The idea that professional golf is diluted—which in turn, dilutes fans’ interest—came well before last year’s schism. With the PGA Tour hosting 40-something tournaments in a calendar year it can be trying, and sometimes straining, to find significance in each event. It’s not that these events are meaningless or that players don't care; one of the cooler aspects of the tour is that each week offers the possibility that someone’s life can change. Though that mostly applies to someone winning for the first time or securing status, occasionally there’s a saccharine pull, such as Keegan Bradley winning the tournament he dreamed of winning as a kid at the Travelers Championship in June. In that same breath, a not-so-insignificant portion of the golf populace believe only four tournaments matter—truly matter. The rest of the year is nothing more than filler. It’s why efforts to brand the Players Championship and FedEx Cup playoffs as prime-time events often fall short, because the moment you argue why you’re important is the moment you prove the opposite.

That greed and self-preservation have been the throughlines of the past two years in professional golf has only hardened this reality. Everything else is an offshoot of these truths, or has been collateral damage because of them. A fledgling league that had nothing on the line, just chances for aggrieved or injury-prone or over-the-hill players to go to the bank in exchange for being frontmen for a foreign kingdom with myriad human rights issues. The establishment attempted to use legacy over leverage and lost, the upshot which conferred more leverage to its top players than ever before. Those players were mostly placated, despite some continuing to leverage the league for all its worth. In itself, that’s not necessarily bad. The rollout and responses for both sides were flawed, to say nothing about moral entanglements … yet, in a distilled form, it was capitalism. Professional sports, after all, is a business.

The trouble is that their profession is also millions of fans’ passion, and though not all parties were guilty it appeared most of the game’s central actors cared more about getting paid or taken care of rather than where their actions could be taking golf as a whole.

Reports that Xander Schauffele was nearly booted from the U.S. Ryder Cup team over payment embodies this harsh dynamic. It is not an indictment on Schauffele or that players shouldn’t get paid for representing their country, particularly given the tens of millions the event generates. It also doesn’t mean a player wanting to get paid is mutually exclusive to giving his all when the game begins. But that’s the perception, and that perception of selfishness hits hard considering the Ryder Cup is the one event with a communal appeal.

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Richard Heathcote

It would be a misnomer to think this applies to all Americans. Scottie Scheffler cared so much he was brought to tears in the middle of the event, not because he was embarrassed by his play but because he thought he let his club down. No one questions Justin Thomas’ adoration for the Ryder Cup; Max Homa has repeatedly said he wasn’t interested in LIV offers because LIV “can’t buy my dreams,” one of which was to compete in this event. Then there is Bradley. He famously has not opened his luggage from the 2012 Ryder Cup, allowing himself only to do so when he's part of a winning Ryder Cup. In an era when many Americans were accused of not caring, Bradley cared a lot. When he won the Travelers, Bradley said his first thought was the feat put him one step closer to achieving that dream. It’s why his exclusion from this year’s team was so notable, for Bradley did not hide how bad he wanted it, and that’s something American fans have wanted out of their boys for some time.

There is no need to relitigate that the Europeans have refined a culture over decades centered around the Ryder Cup, with the communal experience serving as the foundation for what they have built. To play for each other and their separate countries and those who are hollering like hell to support them. It’s not the only reason why those who are considered rank-and-file players most of the year turn into legends time and time again, or why they haven’t lost at home in 30 years, or why they continue to win as underdogs, because that would imply the Europeans don’t care when they go on the road, where they have lost three of the past four times. It’s just the only reason that matters.

Which begs the question to golf's stakeholders: How do you replicate this fervor that only seems to exist around this three-day event?

Much like dissecting why the Americans continue to struggle on the road, there is no easy solution to golf’s caring problem. We do know what doesn’t work, and that’s throwing money at the issue. If that was the answer LIV Golf would have successfully disrupted the sport, and the tour’s postseason would be talked about in the same vein as the majors. To the tour’s credit, the new signature-event series may rectify part of that woe, letting the sport know these tournaments require their attention. But considering a popular response to the series is that these events are nothing more than WGCs. 2.0, the tour will likely continue to fight an uphill battle.

Perhaps the only answer is what makes the Ryder Cup special is what makes the rest of the schedule fall short. Again, it’s not that what happens on the PGA Tour or DP World Tour or any tour around the world is inconsequential, or that they are the same as LIV Golf when it comes to relevance. It’s just a continuum, and the Ryder Cup continues to cement itself far down the caring spectrum from anything else in the game. Because from now until Bethpage there will be millions to be made playing golf that mostly looks the same as the golf played the week before that will look like the golf coming after. But then the Ryder Cup will come and it will be different. We care about the Ryder Cup because it’s fleeting, and because its memories are eternal.