MEDINAH, Ill. -- OK, it’s time for a little Ryder Cup parlor game. Go ahead and read the following quote from America’s 5-Hour Energy supernova Jim Furyk and see if you can pull out the trash talk.
“We're not just playing one individual, though, we're playing 12,” Furyk told the Associated Press last week. “Obviously, [Rory McIlroy] is a marked man. He's the No. 1 player in the world. He's going to garner all the attention, as well he should. He's played phenomenal this year. … He's right now the present-day Tiger Woods, where everyone's eyes are on him. Tiger is still Tiger. Everyone would love to see that pairing in the Ryder Cup.”
OK, did you see it? Did you catch it? Maybe these headlines can help.
New York Post: “McIlroy OK with bulls-eye on his back”
Irish Times: “McIlroy has no fears of ‘Marked Man’ role”
Daily Star: “McIlroy’s a marked man”
Express: “Colin Montgomerie fears for marked man Rory McIlroy”
Ah, yeah, that marked man thing … that’s the vicious statement. You know, the one where Furyk said that obviously McIlroy’s a marked man, because, you know, he’s the No. 1-ranked player in the world and everybody will pay attention to him. Yeah. That’s ruthless stuff right there.
All right, well, here, let’s play the game again. This time the quote is from the man who wears the crazy pants, Ian Poulter of England.
“I mean, you know, I hate to say we don't get on for three days, but there is that divide, and it's not that we don't like each other. We are all good friends, both sides of the pond. But there's something about Ryder Cup which kind of intrigues me, how you can be great mates with somebody, but, boy, do you want to kill them in Ryder Cup.”
OK, did you see it this time? You had to catch it this time. To the headlines:
Herald: “Poulter fuels Ryder tension with ‘Kill’ comment”
San Diego Union Tribune: “Englishman Poulter is ready to ‘Kill” Americans in the Cup”
The Independent: “Primal scream from Poulter drowns out the schmaltz from American TV”
ESPN: “Poulter ups the stakes with ‘Kill’ comment”
Are you bleeping kidding me? Seriously? A quote where he talks about how he’s great friends with these guys but when it comes to the Ryder Cup “boy do you want to kill them?” Can you trash talk with the word “boy” leading off? What if it had been “Boy-howdy!” Or “Gosh darn it!”
This is how desperate so many people are for a nasty Ryder Cup. This is how insistent people are to turn this thing into another War on the Shore, another Battle of Brookline. I have a theory about this. Golf, when we regular people play it, can be a nasty game. You probably have seen that. It can be a game filled with kicking a ball away from a rock (despite what the commercials tell you, Phil Mickelson is not usually there to kick it back), marking a 4 when you scored a 9, gamesmanship, and excessively large bets.
Professional golf isn’t like that, at least not out in the open. Maybe behind the scenes it’s nasty. But out in public, professional golfers call penalties on themselves -- even stupid penalties that seem to have no basis in reality. In professional golf, no one would ever openly root for another guy to miss -- it’s considered bad form to even say AFTERWARD that you were happy that a golfer missed the putt that might have forced a playoff.*
*Correct response: “I feel bad for Tommy. I expected him to make it. It would have been great to face him in a playoff, and while I will cash this $1.2 million check, I certainly would have preferred to face him.”
In professional golf, Tommy Aaron once cost Roberto De Vicenzo a chance to play in a Masters playoff by messing up his scorecard. Did De Vicenzo bash Aaron’s head with a seven-iron (or, if it was against the wind, a six?). Are you kidding? De Vicenzo took the blame himself for not checking the card better. He uttered one of the great quotes in golf history: “What a stupid I am!” That’s professional golf. The fans are supposed to be quiet. The players are supposed to never step in another player’s line or cough on the other player’s backswing. It’s not the game most of us play.
But at the Ryder Cup, wait a minute, things change. Suddenly, there might be a little gamesmanship, there’s a lot of cheering, there’s a desire to set up the golf course to help your own team. Golf becomes a team sport. And the emotions of golf become a lot more familiar to those who play it at home.
This is largely due to one man: Seve Ballesteros. You know, from 1935 to 1983 -- almost 50 years, if my math’s right -- the United States lost the Ryder Cup exactly one time. Once. Most of these were not close. Take 1947. It was the first Ryder Cup after World War II, and Great Britain was still trying to put the pieces back together. The team they sent to Portland Golf Club was particularly weak -- only captain Henry Cotton had developed any sort of reputation in the U.S. -- and the Americans won the Cup 11-1.
The U.S. team was so dominant that U.S. captain Ben Hogan did not even play in the singles. Herman Kaiser played and lost to Sam King -- the only victory Europe managed.
And while that was a particularly stark destruction, it was not out of character. The U.S won 9.5 to 2.5 in 1951, 23.5 to 8.5 in 1967, 21-11 in 1975 and so on. Well, this was inevitable. Just about all of the great golfers of the time -- Hogan, Snead, Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson, Trevino, Floyd, Miller, Irwin, Casper -- were Americans. The team from Great Britain had, you know, Tony Jacklin.
But in the late 1970s, Seve Ballesteros emerged. And he was something. He was Spanish. He was tanned. He was outspoken. And he was insanely talented. He won five major championships. He tried shots that nobody else even dreamed about. Hook it around that tree, over that garage, under that swing set, through that hanging tire … the guy would try anything. And he’d pull it off more often than not.
When Ballesteros emerged on the world scene, Spanish players were not even part of the Ryder Cup. Back then it was the U.S. against a team of players from Great Britain and Ireland. Jack Nicklaus led the charge to expand things a bit, to make it the U.S. against Europe -- Nicklaus craved competition. The first time the U.S. faced all of Europe was 1979. Ballesteros was just 22 then, but he played in the Ryder Cup … and lost four of the five matches he was involved in. The U.S. stomped Europe 17-11. Ballesteros did not play in the 1981 Ryder Cup -- something to do with money -- and the United States dominated 18.5 to 9.5.
But in 1983, at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., something changed. Ballesteros was a big reason. He scored three points in his five matches, and Europe narrowly lost, 14.5 to 13.5. But it wasn’t just Ballesteros’ performance. There was a whole different feeling. Ballesteros was a force of will. His attitude spread to the whole team. He wanted everyone to understand that golfers from Europe were just as good as the Americans. Better, even.
Ballesteros was a proud and stubborn man. Not everyone liked him. He fought for his causes. He fought for better conditions and more money in 1981, which is why he wasn’t on that Ryder Cup team. He was banned from the PGA Tour in 1986 for not playing in enough events. He took people on. He was charming and ruthless, and he carried both of those traits into epic Ryder Cup battles. In 1985, Europe broke through with a crushing victory -- Ballesteros scored 3.5 points. In 1987, he teamed up with his countryman Jose Maria Olazabal, and they became perhaps the greatest Ryder Cup team. They won three of four, Ballesteros beat Curtis Strange, and Europe won again.
And while all this was happening, the Ryder Cup started to become … angry. Fun. Electric. In other words, it began to take on Ballesteros’ personality. It could never have been any of those things when the U.S. was routing Great Britain every year. But now that it was competitive, now that the Europeans were not backing down, now that the U.S. found itself on the losing end, things changed. In the famed 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah, Ballesteros and Olazabal won three of four matches, halved another, and Ballesteros crushed Wayne Levi in the singles. But the U.S team won anyway when Bernhard Langer missed a six-footer that would have halved his match. It was nearly unanimous among the competitors that this was the tensest golfing competition in history.
It has stayed tense. I was at Brookline in 1999 -- I saw the U.S. players run on the green in celebration after Justin Leonard made his crazy long putt. People have long argued about the decorum there (Olazabal still had his putt to attempt) but without making judgments, it was easily the most UNGOLF moment I have ever seen. By that I mean, after watching the way golfers act and talk and respond in so many tournaments, to see that sort of unrestrained emotion was wild and strange. Maybe that’s why I like the Ryder Cup so much. There’s a lot less ceremony and ritual suppression and lot more emotion and choking and jubilation.
But that said … it’s only fun when it’s real. I was at Valderrama in 1997, when Ballesteros was captain, and that was real. Seve was driving all over the place in a golf cart, offering tips, acting the cheerleader, trying to intimidate. It was hilarious and infuriating and wonderful. I always remember a moment -- I’ve written this before -- when Ian Woosnam was attempting to hit a shot from under a tree during a practice round, and Seve was pointing up at a crack of sunlight and saying, “Hit it through there.” And Woosnam thought the man was crazy -- not because he doubted his ability to hit the ball through that opening but because HE COULD NOT EVEN SEE the opening.
But Ballesteros inspired the Europeans to be like him, to take chances, to be unrelenting, to remember that they were the better team. And this new anxiety and pressure often brought out the best of the U.S. team too -- like at Brookline when the U.S. won 8.5 of the 12 singles points to pull off a stunning comeback.
Ballesteros died in May, and there are many efforts to be sure that he is remembered here. But to really honor Ballesteros’ contribution to the Ryder Cup is not to exaggerate harmless quotes and try to create absurd tension that doesn’t even exist. No, you hope they will honor him with the golf. This is a great time in the sport, a time when a legend named Tiger is playing well again, when a prodigy named Rory has his game soaring, when players like Sergio Garcia and Jason Dufner are finding their form, when Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk and Lee Westwood are finding their youth. They are all playing on a golf course set up for birdies and madness, and it will be serenaded with “U-S-A” chants and a lot of spirit.
It should be a great weekend, filled with cheering and hard feelings and big-time golf. Jim Furyk isn’t marking anybody. Ian Poulter doesn’t want to kill anybody. That’s ridiculous. If it works out, this will be a heated and stormy weekend. If it works out, some players will hit great shots under the most intense pressure, and others will -- as my buddy Jim Litke wrote in 1991 -- “throw up on each other.” If it works out, it will be a blast.
But let’s not kid anybody. It’s still golf. They’ll all be drinking beer and playing Ping-Pong in the clubhouse after it’s over.