Being as patriotic as the next guy, I didn't expect to find myself rooting for the Europeans in the 1999 Ryder Cup. I certainly cheered for the U.S. in '91, '93, '95 and '97, but there was something about these particular European golfers, and something else about their American counterparts, that left me pulling hard for an upset last weekend in Brookline, and a number of my friends shared this foreign inclination. What made my stance stranger still is that I'm a member of the Country Club, which hosted the event.
Proudly, I hasten to add. The Ryder Cup is one of the great sports events in the world, and most of the members agreed it was worth two summers of watching the course be tuned and tweaked—and eventually closed and overrun—in order to bring such a special competition to Boston. Then we found out that the Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world, Tiger Woods and David Duval, didn't consider it a competition, since there wasn't a fat paycheck at the end of the day. Exhibition was the word they preferred.
The knee-knocking, vomit-inducing atmosphere of a Ryder Cup isn't usually something one associates with an exhibition—"Everything shakes except the shaft of the club, and that's when it's still in the bag," Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal of Spain recalled of his first Ryder Cup shot—but let us not quibble over a matter of semantics. A practice round may be more in keeping with the tone of an exhibition, and on Aug. 30 the U.S. team was scheduled to come to the Country Club to play one. Captain Ben Crenshaw, a fanatical student of the game, wanted his charges to familiarize themselves with the course, absorb some of the history of its venerable past and generally begin to bond, something the team badly needed after the unseemly dispute over pay was aired at the PGA Championship at Medinah.
On July 27 a letter was sent to the Country Club's membership by John Cornish, the chairman of the club's Ryder Cup committee, saying that Crenshaw had agreed to let the members attend the practice session, with the caveat that no guests, with the exception of spouses and kids, be brought, no autographs allowed, and no one be permitted to speak to these great warriors so they could concentrate on learning the subtleties of the course. The round would be marshaled by volunteers to ensure that members maintained a "respectful distance" from the players. Fair enough. This was a rare perk for the hundreds of volunteers who collectively had spent thousands of hours in preparation for the 33 rd Ryder Cup: an opportunity to view the U.S. team, without jostling for position with 30,000 other fans. Enthusiasm among the membership was high, and about 300 called to say they would be coming. With family, that meant anywhere from 600 to 1,000 spectators would be on the grounds.
Too many, said Crenshaw. How could his players bond with each other and the course while all those people were gawking at them? Either limit the access to 200, he insisted, or the practice round was off. Cornish decided it was impossible to fairly limit viewing to 200 members, so a second letter was sent out disinviting everyone. The club, including the swimming pool, would be closed until 3 p.m. that day.
It was not a popular decision. Many people had rearranged vacation plans and juggled schedules to be sure to be in town for the practice round. As it turned out, though, they didn't miss out on as much as they thought they would. Only eight of the 12 members of the U.S. team chose to take advantage of their private bonding day, Woods not among them. Still, the whole episode brought home how far the game has come. Back in the early 1900s, when professionalism was a dirty word in golf, pros were not allowed into the clubhouses of private clubs like the Country Club. Now it's the members who aren't allowed on the grounds when the pros move in.
Oh well. I was still ready to wrap myself in red, white and blue when the Ryder Cup began. The Europeans, after all, had won the last two and had retained the Cup in five of the last seven. I was sick of seeing that smug look of satisfaction on Nick Faldo's face, and Seve Ballesteros's flaming eyes and jutting jaw. It was time for some Yankee revenge.
Except there was no smug Faldo. No flaming Ballesteros. No Bernhard Langer. No Woosie. No one capable of boiling my American blood. The first European player I saw on the practice tee was Darren Clarke, a big-bellied, jovial Irishman who looked like someone you might see on the other side of the bar. He was laughing, talking to onlookers, signing autographs. Sergio Garcia...how could you not love Sergio? Informed by a fan that Tiger Woods had put a drive onto the roof of a tent some 300 yards away from the practice tee, Garcia did likewise and stuck out his tongue in jest.
At the press conferences the Europeans were gracious, self-deprecating and funny. Asked about the Country Club's wide fairways, Olaz�bal, who's often wild off the tee, said, "The fairways are never wide enough for me." Underdogs was too good a word for the rookie-laden European team, Sweden's Jesper Parnevik insisted. "We are the underpuppies," he said. Asked to talk about the influence of the 19-year-old wunderkind, Garcia, Lee Westwood, the lone Englishman on the team, said, "It's nice. He sits in the corner and does his homework."
"Then he brings it up to Jesse to make sure everything's right," added Clarke, "and gets a little gold star if it's all good."