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The hills of northern Virginia, with their Civil War battlegrounds, provided a timely reminder last week that golf is not war and that competition can be, well, civil. Neither of the Presidents Cup teams acted badly. The spectators cheered their favorites without descending into drunkenness and jingoism. Even the media behaved. No columnist, as far as I know, charged that a player's muffled cough was actually a ploy to steal the Cup. It's amazing how pleasant team golf can be when the Europeans aren't around.
There, I said it. Count me as one of the few who refuse to join the chorus of American-bashing that seems to follow every Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup. Four Presidents Cups have been played, three on American soil, and not one of them has been marred by charges that the Americans are cheats and bullies. We seem to be fine with Fijians, simpatico with South Africans, A-OK with Australians, nifty with New Zealanders and positive with Paraguayans. It's only when we play the Europeans that the insults fly and the tears flow. Can you spell common denominator?
Consider the recent fuss over alleged U.S. gamesmanship at the Solheim Cup. Yes, captain Pat Bradley played hardball when she invoked the Rules of Golf to force Annika (Two Chip) Sorenstam to replay a shot that she had played out of turn and sunk for a birdie. Sorenstam was rattled and can be forgiven for suspecting that her U.S. opponents, Pat Hurst and Kelly Robbins, intentionally let her play out of turn. But here's what Sorenstam could have said: "It's my responsibility to know the rules and to play by them. I'm sorry I cost my team the hole." Instead she wept over the ruling and then tore into the Americans in a postround interview.
Go back a year. The U.S. Ryder Cup team's premature celebration inside the ropes at Brookline was a clear breach of etiquette, for which the Americans quickly apologized. The European captain, Mark James, could have said, "It was unfortunate, but I think they just got a little excited. It was an amazing comeback, and you have to give them credit for the way they played."
In fact, that's pretty much what James actually said—until the British writers signaled that they were going to use the Americans' behavior as an alibi for the Euro loss. James turned on a dime and slogged Ben Crenshaw & Co. as "an embarrassment to their country." James wrote a book, Into the Bear Pit, that characterized Americans as slack-jawed Bible thumpers and the last day at Brookline as "the day the Ryder Cup about died of shame."
You have to wonder how an independent referee might score these imbroglios. Why, for instance, was it unacceptable for Dottie Pepper to urge an American gallery to cheer when her partner lagged a crucial putt close to the hole at the '98 Solheim Cup, but acceptable for the European players to paste her picture on a punching bag and take swings at it? Why is the U.S. flag scorned as a symbol of Yankee arrogance while the Brits can dance under a Union Jack the size of a parking lot? Why was it inexcusable for American fans to cheer when the Europeans missed a putt at Kiawah Island in '91, but excusable for the European media to practically leap onto their worktables when the Americans faltered at Valderrama in '97?
Don't get me wrong; I love Europe. Some of my best friends are European. But Europe has to accept some responsibility for the ugly tone of recent matches. Juli Inkster had it right when she asked why her friends on the European side snubbed her in the wake of the Solheim face-off. "We play with these girls week in and week out," she said. "Then they act as if they can't stand Americans." Inkster left it at that because she's a good sport. A good sport ignores or makes light of an opponent's bad manners. A good sport handles victory and defeat with equal grace. A good sport never toasts an opponent with wine from sour grapes.
Maybe it's just coincidence that the Presidents Cup, the unloved stepchild of the quarrelsome international matches, is the one pro team competition that delivers amity with spirited competition. But if I were from Europe—the only continent excluded from the Presidents Cup—I might ask myself: Why does peace prevail in our absence?