Ian Poulter swings to win in 2018

Team Europe

In the Ryder Cup the US have the superstars, the major titles, the private jets. Europe have team spirit

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In September 2014, between UKIP’s victory in the European elections and the party gaining its first MP at the Clacton by-election, Nigel Farage appeared in an online video to support European cooperation. He stopped short of singing “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” but there was no mistaking the passion as he urged alle Menschen to “swing for Europe”. 

Fortunately, this was not a sex tape but an advert for a bookmaker, pegged to golf’s Ryder Cup, in which Farage conceded that there are three days out of every 730 when he can stomach the 12 gold stars on blue if it means silencing the “flag-wearing, fist-bumping, gettinahole-shouting Americans”. The type, one might suggest, that he was rather keen to court a few years later.

It has often been the less celebrated golfers who were the heroes

Nigel Farage in a 2014 advert for Paddy Power

Farage mocked the Americans for having silly names. “Hunter, Bubba, Webb: they’re not names,” he said. “They’re just noises. Give me noble, heroic names any day, like Henrik, Sergio or Justin.” He went on to suggest the Yanks would soon be singing “Cry Me a River”, “preferably a great European river like the Rhine — or the Ouse”.

Team Europe, which has now had players from 14 countries (Bernd Wiesberger and Viktor Hovland giving Austria and Norway their first appearances this time), is a coalition of convenience, formed in 1979 because the Ryder Cup was dying after half a century of Britain and, from 1973, Ireland being whipped by the United States. The old golfing world trailed the new 22-3, with two of their wins coming in the 1930s. Help was needed. The US won the first three Ryder Cups after Europeans were admitted, but things began to shift in the mid-1980s. Europe have won 11, and drawn one, of the past 17 and seven of the past nine. Every two years, delayed this year to three by Covid, we see the same thing: the US have the superstars, the major titles, the millions, the private jets; Europe have team spirit.

JosÉ-MarÍa OlazÁbal and Seve Ballesteros at the 1991 Ryder Cup

They also have fans who like to puncture egos. At Celtic Manor in 2010, the American Jim Furyk, who had just won $10 million in the FedEx Cup, was serenaded with “lend us a tenner”, sung to the tune of “Guantanamera”. Furyk contributed just half a point to the US tally as they lost by one.

Perhaps we should call it Espíritu de Seve Ballesteros. The great Spaniard, the first name on the team sheet when Team Europe was created, became the heartbeat of the side, winning three and a half points out of five when they got their first title in 1985 and a further four two years later as the US lost on home soil for the first time. 

Ten years after that, Ballesteros was an inspirational captain as the cup was played in continental Europe for the first time. He seemed to be everywhere on Andalusia’s Valderrama course, zipping around in a buggy to inject passion where needed. Europe won by a point with Costantino Rocca, a fat fortysomething Italian, defeating the great Tiger Woods.

If I was lucky to be at The Belfry in 2002, I was blessed to be in Illinois ten years later to report on the Miracle at Medinah

It has often been the less celebrated golfers who were the heroes, especially at The Belfry in 2002, the last time the competition was delayed a year, by 9/11. On the final day, Phillip Price, the world No 119, beat Phil Mickelson, the No 2, while the unheralded Swedes Pierre Fulke and Niclas Fasth, never to be heard from again, made halves either side of Ireland’s Paul McGinley, the world No 71, stroking in the sweetest ten-footer to win the cup.

I remember watching the end of that match with an old university friend, a Bradford Anglo-Indian with heavy stubble and a heavier accent. This possibly saved his life when the first President Bush came past in a buggy and parked in line with our view. “Ee, ’twould be right easy to assassinate him from ’ere,” Rajat remarked. Fortunately, the security detail didn’t understand Yorkshire.

Jack Nicklaus in 1977, the last Ryder cup before it was the US against Europe

If I was lucky to be at The Belfry in 2002, I was blessed to be in Illinois ten years later to report on the Miracle at Medinah. From 10-4 behind on the second evening, Europe won 10½ of the last 14 points to snatch the win. They even survived Rory McIlroy, their best player, forgetting what time zone he was in and arriving at the course ten minutes before his singles match was due to start. At every key moment, Europe had nerves of steel. Eleven matches went to the eighteenth hole and the US failed to win any.

Again, the spirit of Seve guided them, a year after his death from cancer. José María Olazábal, with whom Ballesteros had enjoyed a record partnership in the competition, was Europe’s captain. He put Ballesteros’s image on their bags, dressed them in his old friend’s favoured navy blue outfit and filled them with his indefatigable attitude. When Martin Kaymer, a German, holed the putt that ensured Europe would retain the cup, Olazábal closed his eyes and turned his face up to the sky. Their guardian had seen them home.

Europe’s Seve these days is Ian Poulter, the leading points-scorer in 2008, 2010 and 2012, where his run of five consecutive birdies on the Saturday night inspired the revival. Now aged 45 and down to No 49 in the world rankings, Poulter was an easy selection this year. He has no major titles — the closest he came was 13 years ago — but at team matchplay in late September he is brilliant. “These might be my majors and that’s fine,” he once said. “If they are, I’m a happy man.”

The USA should win at Whistling Straits this month. They have eight of the top ten to Europe’s one (the Spaniard Jon Rahm) and no one ranked lower than 21. Eight of Europe’s 12 are worse than that, down to Wiesberger’s 61. The Yanks lead 13-7 in majors and they still have lots of silly first names (Bryson, Brooks, Xander, Harris and Collin with two Ls). Don’t bet against Europe winning again.

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