Picture credit: UPI/Brian Kersey

Up for the cup

Hoping for a golfing renaissance in Rome

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I probably should have forgiven my daughter by now for making me miss one of the closest Ryder Cups. It was 13 years ago and she wasn’t born when I turned down the offer to cover it because my first child was due and it would have been tricky if my wife had gone into labour while I was 180 miles away on a tee near Newport. 

So I missed out on being at Celtic Manor for a contest that went down to the 17th hole of the final singles match. Naturally, she arrived two weeks late. Two years on, I was sent to Chicago for the 39th and, it turned out, greatest battle for the trophy named after the St Albans seed merchant who in 1927 had created a biennial contest for golfers in the United States and Great Britain, expanded in 1979 after 42 years without a British win to the whole of Europe. Their 12 players this year come from nine different countries.

The Miracle at Medinah, as that competition in 2012 became known (on this side of the Atlantic, anyway), came out of the blue. As miracles do, of course. After sharing the first games 2-2, Americans holed birdies for fun and led 10-4 late on the second afternoon. Had Steve Stricker holed from six feet for a half, the US would have needed four points from 13 matches to regain the cup 10-5.

In the last match, Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter had been two down to Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner before the most extraordinary of comebacks — and it was not McIlroy, the world No 1, who achieved it but his fist-pumping, eyes-bulging, nerves-of-steel partner, who birdied the last five holes in a row. 10-6.

When all 12 matches are on the course, the position changes all the time

My old sports editor once described singles day at the Ryder Cup as man’s greatest invention for ensuring that you don’t move off the sofa all day. When all 12 matches are on the course, the position changes all the time as holes on the scoreboard turn blue when Europe win a hole or red for America. When you are there, emotions swing with the distant roars. Was that a European cheer or not?

But to win from four points down against the Americans, who are always so strong when playing on their own? Not going to happen. I remember Colin Montgomerie, Europe’s Mr Ryder Cup before Poulter, being asked on that second evening in what order he would send out the singles for this impossible task. “Well I’d have Seve first,” he replied. “Then Faldo, Langer, Me …” The joke being that they were all long retired. Or in the case of Seve, not long expired.

Maybe that was the secret. Severiano Ballesteros, the magician who had conjured so many miracles for himself and for Europe had succumbed to brain cancer at 54 the previous year. His closest friend, José Maria Olázabal, with whom he had once won 12 points out of 15 in the Cup, was now the captain. He put silhouettes of the master on their bags and dressed them in Ballesteros’s favourite final-day colours of navy blue and white. “Do this for Seve,” he told them.

Europe won the first five matches and seven of the first ten, even brushing off McIlroy oversleeping and missing his warm-up. But still needing a point to retain the trophy, hopes rested on an out-of-form Martin Kaymer beating Stricker or Francesco Molinari finding good luck against Tiger Woods. Kaymer manfully clung in there until the 18th when the German had a six-foot putt for the match. It was the same distance that his compatriot Bernhard Langer had missed from to lose the Cup in 1991. Medinah’s roaring bearpit fell silent as a cathedral.

Not for long. Kaymer found the centre to bring cries of “Ole! Ole! Ole!” Minutes later, Woods missed a tiddler to beat Molinari. Europe had done it for Seve. In an extraordinary year for a British sport reporter that included Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France, Andy Murray the US Open, England’s rugby team beating the All Blacks and the London Olympics, Medinah may top them all.

And now here we are again. On September 29, Europe face the US at the Marco Simone golf club near Rome. The Yanks won the last one, in Wisconsin, by 19-9, the biggest margin since 1975. 

They have 14 major titles to Europe’s nine and six of the world’s top ten, while the hosts have three outside the top 50 including Ludvig Åberg, a 23-year-old Swede who turned professional in June, has never played in a major and was given a wild card by Luke Donald, the captain. Åberg, the top college golfer in the US and the world’s No 1 amateur, may be the hunch of the century or a risky gamble, but this is the Ryder Cup beauty. 

Unlike the tournaments they play in 95 per cent of the time, with fields of individuals competing for the lowest 72-hole score, this is head to head, hole by hole, gladiatorial contest. It is the most thrilling form of golf. It is what Bond plays against Goldfinger, matched in 2002 by Phillip Price, the world No 119 from Wales, beating the great Phil Mickelson.

Europe have not lost at home since 1993. Their players may lack the world rankings, titles and bank balances of the Americans — though Norway’s Viktor Hovland has won $34.5 million this year — but they have character. 

And nine nations, as often seen, can be more united than one. After the Miracle in Medinah, a Renaissance in Rome?

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