No matter who wins September's Ryder Cup, or how, 1999 will be remembered as the end of an era in which the matches were considered the most important event in golf. Ever since Mark O'Meara had the temerity to suggest that the participants should be paid, U.S. players have demonstrated less knee-jerk nationalism and more world-weary ambivalence toward the Ryder Cup, which has become the game's most sacred cash cow. Players such as Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods have been openly critical of the mandatory dog-and-pony shows the PGA of America forced them to attend during a frustrating blur of a week in Spain two years ago. Fred Couples has made it clear that he will play at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., only if he qualifies on points, and David Duval recently gave voice to what would have been lily-livered blasphemy on the eve of 1991's so-called War by the Shore, saying, "I don't see it as the be-all and end-all.... If I had to choose between a U.S. Open and a Ryder Cup, there wouldn't be much of a choice."
U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw counters with fiery rhetoric, saying things like, "We're playing for our souls," but most of the Americans aren't buying. They feel they're being forced into a win-or-else situation against a group of Europeans who have nothing to lose. In golfspeak, that's called a sucker pin.
The game's fans, ever more sophisticated, are also beginning to see the Ryder Cup for the entertaining, but inconclusive, spectacle that it is. Here are five reasons history will show that the heyday of the Ryder Cup began 15 years ago at the Belfry and ended in Brookline.
?There are no longer upsets. Close defeats at Oak Hill in '95 and at Valderrama in '97 as well as last December's crushing loss in the Presidents Cup drove home to U.S. players the hard fact that no matter how great their 12-man squad may appear on paper, three days of match play against a team of world-class opponents is always a crapshoot. Whereas in the old days of American supremacy a defeat was regarded as an unacceptable aberration that had to be avenged, the reality now is that a loss is, more than anything, just golf.
?Making one event all-important has become a poor career decision. The increasing importance 1 of the majors and the addition of the World tour events has diluted the Ryder Cup's cachet. With so many opportunities to gain fame and fortune, only a reckless player would empty his emotional bank account for one event and risk the kind of psychological damage suffered by Mark Calcavecchia at Kiawah Island or Curtis Strange at Oak Hill. Today's more pragmatic pro finds a balance between playing hard and keeping enough in reserve to fight another day.
?The Ryder Cup has become less fun and more of a chore. The easy camaraderie among the players, which used to be the Cup's chief allure, has been all but eliminated. Due to the large number of exhausting and annoying functions, the players barely have time to get to know one another. Call them spoiled, but U.S. pros are used to convenience, and the Ryder Cup now demands sacrifices.
?The opponents will always want it more. Americans have accepted the fact that the European and International teams possess the deep-seated motivation and natural unity of the overlooked and underestimated. More important, the Americans know they can't manufacture such resolve and esprit de corps. While the foreign teams have two years to get psyched for an assault on the Americans, U.S. golfers have been unable to find a way to get up for the Ryder Cup in odd years and the Presidents Cup in even years.
?The Ryder Cup is only an adjunct to a player's record. Other than providing some nice anecdotes, the matches have next to nothing to do with how a player is measured. What is the Ryder Cup record of Seve Ballesteros, the player most identified with the growth of the matches? How about that of Jack Nicklaus? Case closed.
After hearing 15 years of hype, the U.S. players have wised up about the Cup. They've come to the conclusion that three days of team golf, no matter how much others make it out to be the ultimate test, is great theater but means little. Pro golf remains an individual sport in which players live with defeat far more often than they do with victory. The Americans have learned to live with losing the Ryder Cup.
Does that make them more susceptible to defeat? Probably. Crenshaw's troops will go to the Country Club and try their best not to lose the Ryder Cup for a third straight time, but will it matter if they win or lose? No. Not anymore.