The Ryder Cup is never over (even when it's over)
There are approximately 20 phases to a modern Ryder Cup cycle—scholars disagree on the exact total—and while I won’t bore you by listing them out here, I will say that somewhere around Phase 9 or 10, there is a three-day golf exhibition. The rest of the phases revolve around this event, and they range from aimless speculation to strategy to pre-tournament second-guessing to shock to dread to post-tournament second-guessing to lengthy evaluations to national hand-wringing to dramatic but ultimately feckless reform … and back again. The cycle lasts exactly two years, and although the 20-ish phases encompass an impressive and diverse array of existential conditions, there is absolutely no phase called “nothing is happening right now” or “hey, the next Cup is two years away, why are we worried about this?” or “seriously, we’re not talking about the Ryder Cup for at least a month, please leave me alone.” It’s rumored that such a phase existed once, in the fog of history, but in the current golf climate, the Ryder Cup is as ubiquitous as an American election—it’s never over, even when it’s over. Especially when it’s over.
As to this state of affairs, two questions: Why? How?
Blame the format, if you like. It’s essentially perfect—a simple, understandable competition that nevertheless manages to yield up from its basic framework an irresistible brew of nationalism and individual heroics … and strategy and sociology and history and even despair. Unlike tennis’ Davis Cup, which is now attempting to fight off certain death with desperate alterations, the Ryder Cup has only improved with time. There is little to no discussion of changing anything about this event, because when you’re thriving, you talk about everything else. You analyze pairings and form and team-building and relationships. You hand-wring every few years about hostilities between players, or the behavior of the drunken American fans, and you engage in endless debates about the impact (critical or negligible?) of the captains. If you’re a golf writer, you begin pitching Ryder Cup stories sometime in January and have to be restrained by a more moderate editor, and when you’re finally freed from the constraints, you unleash reactions and counter-reactions that are sometimes grotesquely wrong.
The event has gathered a kind of rampant momentum that its founders could not possibly have envisioned when they developed the concept in the early 1920s, and today the word “hype”—another invention of a pre-modern world—is insufficient to describe the culture surrounding an event that is no longer an “exhibition” in anything but name. If it’s an exhibition you want, watch the dishwater-dull Presidents Cup. The Ryder Cup is more of a biennial political war, attended by a quarter million spectators, watched by millions more, and bolstered by a media machine that is drawn like moths to its beguiling flame. Consider the fact that in a sport that is unsurpassed for unapologetic (and occasionally ugly) individualism, there are actual golfers who care more about winning the Ryder Cup than about major championships. There aren’t many, and none are American, but they exist, and that fact is astounding.
If you’re not going to blame the format, blame the Europeans. They’re the ones who really care, and they’re the ones who, by sheer force of their desire, compel the Americans to care almost as much. It’s my firm conviction that there are many American players who would breathe a deep, secret sigh of relief if you told them they never had to play another Ryder Cup. Delve into the origin story of an American golfer, and you will almost inevitably find a moment in childhood where that future star swore off team sports forever due to frustration with his teammates or a general inability to tolerate other people. Even in a country that has exalted the individual, these professionals take the concept to its limit. Their inability to understand, appreciate or subsume their egos to a team is exposed with regularity by the Europeans, who—possibly due to the more collective politics of their own countries—have no such pathology.
Yes, the Americans are talented enough to occasionally win a match on home soil by dint of brute ability, but they’re utterly hopeless in Europe (25 years of futility) and can only hold serve half the time at home (4-4 over the last 30 years). In some certain matches, like Gleneagles in 2014 and Paris this year, the situation descends into misery and dysfunction so extravagant, and so comical, that it’s almost past belief—as bad as Tom Watson’s captaincy was, was it possible to imagine that the Koepka-DJ and Reed-Everyone Else drama would surpass it four years later? Who could have predicted that Tiger Reborn would stalk around Paris in a state of unshakeable ennui? Nothing but nothing exposes the unraveling American psyche quite like the Ryder Cup.
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Meanwhile, it’s plain to see that the Europeans relish beating the Americans on a level we can’t understand. You don’t even need Ian Poulter’s Instagram taunts to prove the point—the joy of the Europeans is so free of artifice or contrivance that it becomes self-evident. Part of that is the experience of winning as a team, irrespective of the opponent. But a greater part has to do with the Americans, who are almost always on the whole a superior team on paper. That fact only becomes heightened as American identity has become more—how to say this without getting overtly political?—distinct over the past decades, more ego-driven, and bred more international resentment. Victory over the Yanks is victory on multiple levels.
And it forces America’s hand. Take a snapshot of the stateside 12 in the midst of their latest defeat and you’ll see a picture of shock and resignation, but nothing is more anathema to the national spirit than surrender and loss. Quitting is not an option, and so they plod on, convincing themselves in the most American way imaginable that each setback is, in fact, prelude to the ultimate victory. Just as Brookline in 1999 signaled an impending sea change in the U.S. vs. Europe dynamic, and just as Azinger’s win at Valhalla in 2008 showed that the Americans had finally learned a system, and just as Mickelson’s Mutiny was going to be the splash of cold water the organization needed to finally turn things around, so the embarrassment in Paris will inevitably be cast with time as the latest wakeup call, setting the stage for decades of triumph.
And through it all, I’ve come to believe, Europe will keep winning.
So, yes, blame the Euros for the hype, because when the format changed in 1979 at a time when the Ryder Cup could just as easily have died of boredom, and when the continental barbarians began streaming through the gate, it changed the whole kit and caboodle. It sent the Cup into a perpetual hype spiral, both sides locked into an ascending double helix of inescapable fate—a fate that is fueled and reinforced by the far-reaching, hyper-saturated, perpetually enlarging climate of mass …
Media. Blame the media. Why not? It’s become fashionable to blame everything else on us, so we may as well add the Ryder Cup to the growing list.
I’m not going to linger long here, because although it’s inarguable that the media has spread its tentacles far and wide, and played its role in inflating the Ryder Cup to its current protuberant state, this is still just sports, and if journalists add fuel to the fire, they only do so at the behest of the public, which is far more numerous and far more influential. In other words, the Ryder Cup is magnified because that’s what the people want. Nobody is out there lamenting the oppressive coverage of the Davis Cup, or the PGA Championship—sports media can’t conjure significance from thin air, and media-blaming in this case is both facile and short-sighted. The tail is not wagging the dog.
That said, the coverage of the Ryder Cup has absolutely become a mirror reflecting the unbridled hype. I’ve already written about my predictive blunders, but there’s probably no better illustration of build-up gone awry from the Paris cycle than Golf.com’s Alan Shipnuck, one of the most prominent (and, in my opinion, best) writers in the sport. In November 2017, he wrote a piece arguing that the influx of young American talent would fundamentally alter the balance of Ryder Cup power and usher in an era of U.S. victory—starting at Le Golf National. It looked eminently reasonable at the time. True, there’s a sui generis American inclination, which I share despite myself, to embody Steinbeck’s “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” and expect success against all evidence to the contrary, but the numbers backed him up, and it was hard to disagree. America was, and remained until the eve of the Cup, the betting favorite. Shipnuck wrote his piece provocatively, framed it as a foregone conclusion, and declared in the opening line that unbeknownst to everyone else, the Ryder Cup was already dead, but he had the facts on his side.
With hindsight, well … but then again, he’s one man with one opinion, so who cares?
The answer, in the age of Ryder Cup pre-eminence, is basically everyone. Including Team Europe’s Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia, who called Shipnuck out by name in the post-match press conference and gave him a rousing sarcastic cheer, with the rest of their teammates, when he asked a question. On Twitter, the parody account TweeterAlliss put together a three-minute “tribute” set to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (and was then compelled to issue a call for peace due to the volume and tenor of abuse Shipnuck took). Lee Westwood (a vice captain on the team) called him out by name along with several other players, and things took a catty personal turn even among some of his fellow journalists—and that’s not even mentioning the hordes of civilians, almost all European, who went after him in ways ranging from light-hearted to terrifying.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
No sports journalist is paid for correct predictions, and only a simpleton would judge him by that standard. Shipnuck was doing his job, and doing it well, actually. But the fact that a year-old column garnered this much attention, even from a prominent writer, is astounding, and it couldn’t have happened outside the Ryder Cup—it’s the perfect metaphor for the swollen importance of an event that has careened dangerously, gloriously off the rails.
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The question I’ve been ignoring thus far is obvious: Is the hype “good”? Is it “bad”?
In one sense, it doesn’t matter. It’s difficult to turn a massive ship around, and nobody who matters wants that anyway—it’s a poorly kept secret, for instance, that the European Tour leans heavily on the Ryder Cup for its financial survival. The only thing that could kill this event is the future Shipnuck envisioned, in which America returns to a period of extended dominance. As long as the status quo reigns, with the Europeans winning three of every four Cups and the Americans stuck in a state of permanent damage control, the hype will only grow—whether we like it or not. As someone who considers it one of the greatest events on the sports calendar, I welcome our new overlords. If you feel differently, well, sorry, but there’s no escape. You may not be interested in the Ryder Cup, but the Ryder Cup is interested in you.
Is it “good” though? Does it conform to what the founders envisioned? Does it respect history, or is it a bombastic corruption of some lost sacred spirit?
I would answer that question, I truly would, but it’s impossible to stay focused just now, as we’re getting ready to begin the 2020 Ryder Cup cycle and I am busy preparing a few pitches for my editors on Phase 1. I’ll leave you with this: Embrace the chaos—you have no choice.