Thank goodness, the medal-play season is almost over—that interminable stretch of the golf calendar during which 150 or so players tee up every Thursday and flail away, mostly unheeded, while a handful of contenders command our attention for four days. Ahead, as refreshing as autumn's first frost, is the team match-play season. During Sept. 13-15 at Lake Manassas, Va., in the Presidents Cup, a dozen of America's top pros will tackle an International team captained by whichever gray-haired gent answers Greg Norman's phone calls the quickest. A week later, in Chepstow, Wales, the American-born stars of the LPGA will take on Europe's women pros in the Solheim Cup. For two whole weeks we will be treated to the game as it was conceived by the shepherds in Scotland: as a contest between golfers playing the same holes at the same time.
The fact that neither of these events is as old as some of my golf towels does not detract from their appeal. The team format, borrowed from the venerable Walker Cup, Curtis Cup and Ryder Cup competitions, overcomes the recognized flaws of match play as a spectator attraction. In regular match play, if Nick Faldo loses in the first round, he's on a wide-bodied jet before dinner. But if Faldo and his partner lose a morning foursomes match in the Ryder Cup, they're likely to get a rematch that very afternoon. Fans don't wander the parking lot with their Day 2 tickets, kicking tires and muttering, " Fred Funk."
Another plus: In team match play every match is worth watching. It matters little if Val Skinner and Patricia Meunier Lebouc are three over and four over par, respectively. What matters is that a team point is up for grabs—a point that could determine which side gets to wave its flags and which has to hide its tears.
But what really makes team match play special is the unpredictable behavior of athletes used to competing as individuals. At the Solheim Cup, sunglassed golfers who normally exhibit as much emotion as tollbooth cashiers will reinvent themselves as Wheel of Fortune contestants. Winners will exchange high fives and yelp like sorority sisters at an engagement party. At the Presidents Cup, trash talkers will emerge—"We're gonna kick some foreign butt!"—and players who normally won't share their views on the weather will suddenly and inexplicably blurt out opinions on abortion, welfare reform and reincarnation. (Before the 1993 Ryder Cup, Paul Azinger threatened to boycott a White House send-off ceremony because he didn't want "to shake hands with a draft dodger," meaning Bill Clinton. The comment caused considerable foot shuffling and throat clearing among older PGA Tour players, whose Vietnam-era slogan was Make Birdies, Not War.)
This time the International men are first out of the controversy blocks with their puzzling impeachment of captain David Graham. But the U.S. team will hardly be friction-free: Davis Love III and Brad Faxon recently torched teammate Scott Hoch for skipping the British Open. (How will captain Arnold Palmer lubricate his team's moving parts? With Pennzoil?) As for the Solheim Cup participants, they will surely find something to fuss about in a country where the street signs, in Welsh, are as long as the streets. Some lassie will make a flip remark, and a day later it will be pinned to a dozen locker room doors, a headline in 64-point type. Count on it.
Traditionalists will object that these flaps and frictions are aberrations, trifles made large by a sensation-seeking press. To which I, a seasoned sensation seeker, reply, but of course. The big team events are gaining on the major championships in terms of audience and prestige, and the day may come when a hissy fit at the Ryder Cup is a bigger story than a playoff victory at St. Andrews.
That's cool. Golf was meant to be more than a good walk audited.