By Aiden McLaughlin
I was 9 years old and already a huge sports addict. I lived in Tooting Broadway, an unremarkable part of South West London, opposite a primary school – most nights after dinner I’d look out from my first floor bedroom window and wait for the caretaker’s son to go out in the playground and hope he’d spot me and wave me over to kick a football over with him until bedtime before Mum or Dad would drag me home to bed. When I wasn’t playing sport I was watching it. Football, cricket, rugby, league, horse racing, cycling, NFL, tennis, Formula One, I watched them all. There wasn’t much golf on, but it was great sitting down with Dad to watch The Open every July; Sevy’s fist pump in 1984 – wow, this guy is a character! Then, on 15th September 1985, a new event entered my world, the Ryder Cup. A team event in golf, what’s all that about? There are Captains? It’s Europe v USA? Interesting…..
I recognised most of the European team, the likes of Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and of course, Sevy. The USA team, not so much; Tom Kite, Craig Stadler and captain Lee Trevino were familiar but apart from that they were strangers to me.
As the afternoon went on and singles matches ended, players would go back down the course and start encouraging their team mates – eh? What’s all that about?
Some Scottish bloke with a big moustache suddenly had a huge putt to win the whole thing. Sam Torrance made it look easy, all 22 ft of it. Suddenly, they’re all up on the roof of The Belfry, drinking Champagne. Tony Jacklin didn’t hit a shot all week but he’s as much of a hero as Sam and the others.
I didn’t realise at the time, but this was the birth of the Ryder Cup as we know it today. It was the first time the USA had lost since 1957 and they wouldn’t win the famous trophy back until 1991’s ‘War on the Shore’ which was an ill-tempered affair. I stayed up well past my bedtime to suffer as Bernard Langer missed a six footer to retain the Cup. There were tears everywhere in the aftermath of arguably the most intense match there had ever been.
1991 showed me an uglier side of the event. Some DJ called ‘Mad Mike’ started a ‘Wake the Enemy’ campaign, with the European players receiving calls to their hotel rooms in the middle of the night. On the course, Corey Pavin pumped up the home crowd (just months after the Iraq war) to an unruly extent never seen before. Ian Woosnam would later say ‘The Americans got so hyped up that they were going to win whatever way they could, and that’s not in the spirit of the game.’
Things settled down after that, until the ‘Battle of Brookline’ in 1999. In a crucial singles match between Justin Leonard and José María Olazábal, Leonard holed a massive 45 foot putt and pandemonium broke out as if the USA had just won the Cup. His teammates on the sidelines and their wives ran onto the green to celebrate – they seemed to forget Olazábal still had a 25 foot putt to halve the hole, which after a delay, he ended up missing. Sam Torrance later said in his autobiography ‘It was the most disgraceful and disgusting day in the history of professional golf. The spectators behaved like animals and some of the American players, most notably Tom Lehman, acted like madmen.’
Although these incidents annoyed me no end at the time, I look back now and realise they actually increased my own fervour for the event as I saw how much it meant to the Americans to win.
I haven’t missed a match since 1985. Luckily for me, it has coincided with Europe being on top for the majority of those sixteen matches, winning ten, with one tie in 1989.
Why haven’t I missed a match? I love the passion. I love the fact that it’s played over three days with different playing formats and even if a team is well ahead after the first two days, the match is far from over (see 1999 and 2012 for example). I love the fact that players arrive at the first tee and they are shaking with fear, just hoping to hit the fairway. I love seeing players rise to the occasion and often exceed the standards they set during every other tournament. Look at the mental toughness and winning records that the likes of Ian Poulter, Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood have shown over multiple editions, despite not winning a single major between them. I can’t think of something to compare in any other sport.
This year’s edition, the 42nd, starts Friday evening NZ time and is being played at Le Golf National near Paris. USA team member Justin Thomas played the French Open there in July and said ‘It’s a great test of golf’ and former European team member Thomas Levet has said ‘It’s a golf course that can really beat you up if you’re not on your guard.’ The USA are favourites with the bookies and victory would be their first on foreign soil since 1993 – an initial look at the teams and you can understand why, with their mix of current high flyers like Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, plus seasoned campaigners like Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth. Oh, and did I mention a certain Tiger Woods, who returns to this stage for the first time since 2012.
The Europeans are no slouches though, with five major champions and 105 European tour wins between them. The likes of Alex Noreen and Thorbjorn Olsen might not be household names like Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia, but they will be competitive and you simply can’t rule the Europeans out. There will be twists and turns over the three days, that’s for sure.
I’ll always sit down and watch the four majors, but I’ll miss a round here and there, and I have a 9-5 job which doesn’t make the closing stages of three of them easy to view, but I will be glued to my seventeenth Ryder Cup on 28th September – there’s nothing quite like it.
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