We’ve reached that one fall weekend every two years when football takes a back seat in sports.
It’s Ryder Cup week.
The most engaging and intense event in golf is on deck at Medinah outside Chicago, and the United States is stocked with talent to try to wrest the trophy from the grip of the Europeans.
“These guys are going to have moments out there this week that will change their careers and that they will remember the rest of their lives,” U.S. captain Davis Love III said.
We’re not talking about moments like Monday night when two under-qualified officials made conflicting calls on the final play in the end zone of the NFL game between the Seahawks and Packers. One guy – who was in prime position to see (and ignore) a blatant offensive pass interference – raised his hands for a game-winning Seattle touchdown. The other guy – in better position to see that the Green Bay defender had control of a game-saving interception before the interfering receiver stuck his arms in – was signaling touchback.
In classic Keystone Kops fashion, they went with the old baseball adage and gave the tie to the receiver. Replays were inconclusive and the team from labor-busting Wisconsin went home with a loss courtesy of scab refs. It was the perfect ending of a game that was spiraling toward that kind of disaster with every blown judgment call on just about every play in the closing quarter.
The whole thing was such a disgrace that there was universal outcry for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to open the league’s fat wallet and pay the real refs double what they were demanding. Former quarterback Steve Young was lamenting the mockery that the replacement officials are making of “the greatest team sport in the history of man.”
I had no idea Young was such a Ryder Cup fan.
Golf, quite frankly, is a much better team sport than it is an individual sport. The Ryder Cup has proven that every other year after year since it has grown in competitiveness once the late Seve Ballesteros showed the Europeans how to stick it to the Americans.
If you haven’t seen replays of players throwing up all over themselves in the fabled “War by the Shore” at Kiawah in 1991 or don’t remember the eruption of emotion in the “Battle of Brookline” in 1999, you don’t understand the kind of pressure playing for teammates and country creates in guys more accustomed to playing for paychecks.
Hunter Mahan duffed a chip like a weekend hacker on the decisive hole of the decisive match in Wales two years ago and couldn’t talk afterwards. (As opposed to Spurrier, who is pouting and refusing to take questions from any media because he once again is upset with a local reporter.) This week, Mahan said he can’t even watch because of the heartbreak of not getting the chance to redeem himself on the Ryder stage.
“It’s very, very intense,” Love said. “It’s almost unfair to the players, but I think these guys love the challenge of that and see how they can react under that kind of pressure.”
The atmosphere at a Ryder Cup is incredible. Nowhere else is the first tee so energetic and nerve-wracking – not even at Augusta National on the Thursday of a Masters Tournament.
Fans singing “Olé, olé, olé” and chanting “U.S.A.” are the only things that drown out the players’ teeth chattering and knees knocking.
Friday is as intense as Sunday, with the whole affair being broken down into 28 outcomes that are made up of even smaller definitive moments that somehow matter more than the birdies and bogeys that comprise the sum total of a major championship. Tiger Woods doesn’t fist-pump on Thursdays on tour, but he might at Medinah if Steve Stricker rolls in a 40-footer on the 14th hole.
“You have to make your players believe that you’re playing for something really special, that it’s a unique moment,” European captain Jose Maria Olazabal said.
Making this Ryder Cup even more special is the strongest cast of characters at the top of their games. Every one of the 24 players is ranked among the top 35 in the world – including nine of the top 10 and 17 of the top 19. All 12 of the Americans are ranked inside the top 23, 11 of them have won tournaments this year and all of them qualified for the Tour Championship at East Lake along with five Europeans.
The Olympics in 2016 won’t have a field of golfers remotely this talented.
Love has the course set up with little rough – “I just don’t like rough,” he said – to turn up the volume on the birdies and drama.
“I think fair and fun and exciting for the fans on TV is the way to go,” he said.
So tune out the NFL officiating circus and the sulking coaches and enjoy golf at its absolute finest.