Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 7, 2010

Monty’s Lads Claim The Cup

On a soggy golf course in Wales two dozen golfers, twelve each from the United States and Europe, spent a lengthy four days over last weekend vying for Samuel Ryder’s Cup. The 38th Ryder Cup Matches were played on the Twenty Ten Golf Course at Celtic Manor, a resort in Newport, Wales. The course is so named because after the venue was awarded this year’s Cup matches in 2001, the owners completely rebuilt one of the two golf courses on the property; making this the first time the matches have been contested on a course built specifically for them.

The Ryder Cup began as a biennial contest between American and British golfers in 1927. Samuel Ryder was a wealthy businessman who made his fortune by inventing the concept of selling small packets of fruit, flower, and vegetable seeds by mail. Ryder’s “penny packets” were enormously successful, and eventually allowed him the free time to become an avid golfer. Determined to boost professional golf in Great Britain, he sponsored several tournaments and eventually donated the gold trophy that bears his name to the R&A and PGA; to be awarded every other year to the winning team in a competition between golfers from the U.S. and Great Britain.

In the six matches between 1927 and the suspension of play brought on by World War II, the U.S. won four times and Great Britain won twice. However after the war a long period of U.S. dominance set in, with the American squad winning 15 times between 1947 and 1977 while losing only the 1957 matches. In an effort to restore competitive balance, the British team was expanded to include Ireland in 1973; and then all of continental Europe in 1979.

That change from U.S. versus Great Britain to U.S. versus Europe fundamentally changed the nature of the Ryder Cup. It did in fact make the competition much more competitive. In what might be called the modern era of the Cup, Europe led with 8 wins to the United States’ 7 going into this year’s event. And by making the results less certain and expanding the field of participants on the other side of the Atlantic, the change has greatly elevated fan interest on both sides of the pond.

The latter has had both good and bad aspects. On the one hand, it’s given professional golf a big biennial television attraction in the fall, well after the four major championships have been contested. On the other hand, it has also led to a competition that in rare moments has gotten too intense for a game that has very deep roots in the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play.

Perhaps the lowest moment in the history of the Ryder Cup came in 1999 in the Boston suburbs. The U.S. trailed Europe 10-6 after the first two days of team competition, but rallied mightily in Sunday’s twelve singles matches. The Americans won the first seven matches, most of them decisively, to pull ahead of Europe. When Jim Furyk closed out Sergio Garcia in match #9, the U.S. needed just one half point to retain the Cup. Meanwhile match #11, between American Justin Leonard and Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabel came to the 17th hole all square. Both players were on the par-4 green in two with lengthy birdie putts. When Leonard sunk his from forty feet, thus putting him at least momentarily ahead and ensuring that if that status prevailed he could do no worse than win the ½ point that the U.S. needed to retain the Cup, both the crowd and players surrounding the green erupted. Players, caddies and wives rushed onto the green to embrace Leonard. The only problem of course was that Olazabel had yet to putt, and at least one television camera man trampled on his line.

But the few bad moments have been far outnumbered by instances of high drama. Despite the torrential rains which disrupted last weekend’s matches, this year’s Ryder Cup did not disappoint. The first day of play on Friday was largely lost to a rain delay of more than seven hours, and not one of the first four team matches was completed. This led to a schedule change, with the second and third sessions having six matches each instead of the usual four. The change allowed for the elimination of a fourth team play session while preserving the 28 point Ryder Cup format (16 points in team competition followed by 12 singles matches). It also left open the possibility that play might be completed before Halloween.

On Saturday the Americans took the early lead as the first four matches were completed, followed by the second session. While Europe took the first point when Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer closed out Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, by the end of the second session the U.S. had pulled into a 6-4 lead. But there were signs of hope for the Europeans as darkness fell Saturday evening. When play was suspended in the early stages of the third session, Europe led in all six of the matches.

Sunday brought an additional rain delay that ended any hope of concluding play on time. It was announced early on that the 12 singles matches would be contested on Monday, for the first time in Ryder Cup history. But while Sunday was not the final day, it was the decisive one. The match standings at Saturday’s suspension of play did indeed prove a harbinger. First the team of Lee Westwood and Luke Donald trounced the previously unbeaten duo of Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, 6&5. Then the two golfers from Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell finished off Dustin Johnson and Hunter Mahan, 3&1 in the final alternate shot match. The European squad went on to win three of the four better ball matches. They also captured a half-point in the fourth when the Italian Molinari brothers halved with Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar. The brothers were one down on the 18th when Francisco hit his third shot to the par-5 inside of four feet and sank the birdie putt.

The 5 ½ to ½ point drubbing left European captain Colin Montgomerie grinning from ear to ear. As a player, Montgomerie was a long-time stalwart for Europe, going undefeated in eight singles matches. But he correctly pointed out that “it takes 12 players to win The Ryder Cup. And all 12 on that course today performed brilliantly.”

Trailing 9 ½ to 6 ½ going into Monday’s singles, the U.S. did all it could to rally, but in the end came up just short. It was the Northern Irish duo who made the crucial difference for Europe. First Rory McIlroy got up and down from a greenside bunker at the 18th to steal a half-point with a draw against Stewart Cink. Then, after American rookie Rickie Fowler had stolen that half-point back (and justified his somewhat controversial selection as a captain’s pick by Corey Pavin) with a late birdie barrage to halve with Edoardo Molinari, the 38th Ryder Cup came down to the final match on the course. Graeme McDowell calmly sunk a birdie putt on the 16th to go 2-up on Hunter Mahan. Then on the par-3 17th Mahan flubbed a chip from just off the green. When his lengthy desperation putt for par from the fringe rolled past the hole, Monty’s lads had held off Pavin’s U.S. squad and won the Ryder Cup.

Week in and week out, golf tournaments conclude with the winner posing with an oversized cardboard check. Year in and year out, the Ryder Cup concludes with golfers in tears. There is no prize money, there are no FedEx Cup points awarded. There is just a rather small golden trophy, plus the pressure, the pride, and the pleasure, of playing for one’s flag. On Sunday the tears of joy belonged to Colin Montgomerie, who called his team’s triumph “the greatest moment of my golfing career.” The bitter tears of sorrow belonged to Hunter Mahan, who was inconsolable; though his loyal teammates did their best to do what could not be done.

In the end the hero of the hour, Graeme McDowell, best described what it’s like to play for the Cup. Last June McDowell became the first European in four decades to win the U.S. Open, when he survived the ultimate test of golf at Pebble Beach. Let’s all just pause for a moment, and imagine what that must have been like for McDowell.  The first European in forty years, nearly a decade longer than McDowell’s been alive.

Asked to compare the pressure of that Open with what he faced surveying his ultimately decisive birdie putt on the 16th, McDowell said, “compared to that, the U.S. Open was like playing nine holes with my Dad at Portrush,” McDowell’s home course.  Even for millionaire professional golfers, there are things far more important than a prize check.  Whichever side won, that’s a good thing.

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