Exulting in the miracle of Medinah, my colleague John Hopkins rightly pointed out that sports writing is an ‘enviable gig.’ Whilst undeniably true, it can also have the effect of anaesthetising you to the magic of sport. Another day at Lord’s, or Twickenham or Wembley, anyone?
Humbly, can I suggest that when such opportunities come on the back of half a lifetime actually playing top-class sport, you become doubly resistant to its charms? Of course, the aim is to find a little sparkle during even the most mundane encounter- which is always possible, although the county ground at Derby on a wet Tuesday is a challenge- but when you’ve walked out to bat with 90,000 Australians abusing you, and then when you’ve reported on countless first mornings of an Ashes Test at Lord’s, it takes a lot to get you excited; really excited, like a kid on Christmas morning.
I felt like that for three days at Medinah. I approached it with some caution: I mean, all the flag waving, the excessive jingoism, the ridiculous outfits and the nonsensical focus on the wives and their outfits (when one American strode to the first tee on the final day hand in hand I had convulsions at visions of a batsman in an Ashes Test doing the same), combined with 40,000 badly dressed golf fans, is enough to dampen any enthusiasm.
And sure enough, things got off to a tricky start. There was Justin Timberlake hosting the pre-match gala, the tone of which confirmed that the cultural divide across the water is as great as ever. And when local soft-rock band Chicago belted out their greatest hits (a performance which, by my reckoning, should have taken twenty minutes, but was still going an hour longer than that) things were looking grim. Little improved the next morning at the official opening ceremony on course when Timberlake revisited some of his ‘hard-hitting’ questions from the night before.
And then came the golf. Great sporting events come in many shapes and sizes, but the 39th Ryder Cup had just about every ingredient. History and tradition, first of all, and plenty of it: all of these players knew that they were walking the path trodden by the greats of the past, many of whom were there to sprinkle a little stardust on events just before the off. Some were there in ceremonial mode- silver-haired Lee Trevino looked resplendent as an elder statesman- some in working mode, although when Freddie Couples was spotted wandering down one fairway arm in arm with three players’ wives, one sensed Freddie wasn’t taking his vice-captaincy duties overly seriously.
There was a hint of controversy to kick things off. Variously there were reports that anywhere between 600 and 1200 trees had been cut down to provide what in any other sport would be regarded as perfectly acceptable home advantage. Davis Love, known to us throughout the week- beautifully for one who looks like a lab technician- as Captain Love, wanted a putting competition and, with no rough to speak of, that is exactly what he got.
I walked with Phil Mickelson for seven holes on the second day and saw him hit one fairway. But I didn’t reckon that any of his subsequent pars or birdies was in any way controversial until I sat in a television studio and listened to Jack Nicklaus shout down the tactics of a captain interfering with a golf course in no uncertain terms. Clearly, a little pitch doctoring does not do in golf.
All sport needs fresh blood to go into established veins and the first two days were a triumph of rookiedom. In particular, it was a joy to watch two of the American new boys, Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley. Dufner walks onto the course like a high school kid just risen from bed to deliver his morning paper-round: shambolically dressed, wild of hair and all slouching shoulders and bowed head as if he was too embarrassed to be a part of the whole thing. But, my, he can play.
Bradley is a twitcher and one fears for his future. Staring maniacally at the ball and then the fairway, back and forth, back and forth, he addresses his ball for an age; he minces forwards and then back, and again, tapping his toes in a soft-shoe shuffle. He could go the way of Sergio Garcia, whose hand-twitching on the club so got out of control that he finally taped his hands to the shaft to cure it. Mind you, given the bollocking Bradley’s father handed out to me when I inadvertently stepped in front of his line of sight on one hole, I can see why the boy might be nervous.
It was Dufner who provided the week’s most comic moment. He is no athlete- the Samit Patel of the American team- and wearing a kind of under-shirt, he began to burn-up in the glorious Chicago weather on the second afternoon. He faced a dilemma: over-heat, or remove his undershirt, but knowing that if he took the second option the cameras would not be kind. Cue five minutes of Harry Houdini-like wriggling when what he really needed was his mum to hold a towel round him as she surely did on a beach years ago. He did it, though: removed the whole thing without an inch of flesh on display. He looked pleased with himself.
There were stories all around us, particularly the kind that sportswriters like to wrestle with in cod-psychology mode. Why, for example, does the Ryder Cup transform Ian Poulter into a demon, and Tiger Woods into a duffer? Well, that was the general consensus, and Poulter was magnificent, for sure, but all I saw was Woods fighting heroically with his game, never giving an inch (until the final moment) and putting every ounce of his pride into every shot. Truly, there was greatness in his struggle.
There was mystery. Did Rory McIlroy, who lives in the States many months a year, really find himself on the wrong time-zone? No doubt Olazabal would have been turned over for such slackness had Europe lost, but it seemed to me that the captain’s smile and hugged greeting on the practice putting green when McIlroy made it with eight minutes to spare was exactly what the Irishman needed at that point. Olazabal’s week confirmed to me that what we engage in for much of the time is a kind of re-writing of history with the help of the rear-view mirror. Had Europe lost he would have been slated for his selections during the first two days.
There was sentimentality, too, with Seve everywhere except where we wanted him to be, which was right in the mix of things. Things tended to mawkishness where Seve was concerned but you couldn’t doubt the depth of Olazabal’s feelings, when he cracked up before the first ball had been hit and after the final put. There was some closure for him, one felt, in the manner of his team’s refusal to yield.
And the atmosphere was superb. Having had pints of piss thrown over me on the boundary edge in Melbourne during a one-day game many years ago, I chuckled at the thought that this was a rough crowd. It was raucous, for sure, but beautifully behaved, in the main, respectful of Europe’s players and their talents. Mind you, I was standing next to one PGA official shaking his head as Bubba Watson urged more noise on the first tee during his swing: ‘for years we’ve been trying to get them to keep quiet, now look at this…..’
And so this self-contained narrative, which had swung this way emphatically for two days, and then that way for the third, reached its stupendous conclusion. When Martin Kaymer rolled in his put and turned first to the gallery and then to his on-rushing swarm of team-mates, I found myself high upon a gantry at the back of the green, with a bird’s eye view. As the dappled sunlight began to fade into an evening chill, what a view it was. Truly, this was the greatest sporting occasion I have ever seen. Sometimes, you just get lucky.