The Fun Side of Golf

Golf is one of my favourite sports, and although I don’t get as much a chance to play as I’d like I do enjoy the odd game or two when they come around.  Golf’s a nice way of spending a few hours in the outdoors, playing a simple game and spending time with the people you’re playing alongside.  It’s sedate and calming, unless you’re having a particularly torrid time of it, and there are very few activities in 21st century life that really offer that.

A lot of people would say that playing golf was boring, although I’d disagree, and a whole lot more would say that watching golf on telly or in person was dull too.  Now that’s something I find it harder to argue.  Most golf tournaments take place in rather uninspiring places, with little excitement and enthusiasm from the crowd and little real competition on the course itself.  There’s a few events that I find really break the mould of golf’s stereotype, though, in order of excitement: The Open, The Masters and The Ryder Cup.

The Ryder Cup is golf’s showpiece event.  Rather than the usual golf tournament of sixty or seventy top golfers playing over four days to decide who’s played best, The Ryder Cup sees a European team and an American team, made up of their twelve best golfers, go head to head in a team contest.  It takes the sport that everyone knows and changes it into a more adversarial and more glamorous format to make things more intense and exciting.  Over the Friday and Saturday, there are four games each morning and afternoon as pairs of golfers from each side go head to head in different types of match-play, fourballs and foursomes, where you need to work alongside your teammate to get the best out of each hole and win.  For each game won, that side earns a point towards the goal of 14 and a half which wins the trophy outright.  A tied game earns each team half a point.  The real drama comes on the Sunday, though, where each golfer goes mano a mano with one from the other team.  The last twelve games are always where the tournament is won and lost, and as the score inches closer and closer to the end, each shot carries more and more weight.

Golf isn’t normally a game that is associated with strategy, other than where you want to hit the ball, but The Ryder Cup changes things.  Each team has a captain, usually a wise old figure who has walked the walk at the Ryder Cup before, who picks which golfers play together on the Friday and Saturday and in which order they go out on the Sunday to face the other team.  Choosing who to pair together is often tough, as top golfers rarely play together in such a way, so it’s important to pick two people with enough personal chemistry as well as golfing ability so that they overcome the duo they’re up against.  A famous example of this going wrong is in 2004, when the world’s top two golfers at the time, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, were put out together twice on the Friday and were beaten both times.  Choosing who goes out when on the Sunday is also important, as you want to maximise your point-scoring as much as possible by winning as many games as possible rather than winning a few by several holes.  The difficulty comes as you don’t get to see who the other side are putting out when, so captains are left with the dilemma of whether to send out their best players early and hoping the other team haven’t done the same or to spread things out, but leaving the possibility that one of your best players will go out on course after the match has been lost.  With this added element to a game that’s otherwise as simple as you can imagine, it really creates a different atmosphere to the entire event, as the luck of the draw can really set up the sort of high-tension moments that sports fans live and breathe for.

Part of what makes The Ryder Cup different is the change in the attitude of spectators, which makes the tournament more exciting in person as well as to watch from afar.  Instead of simply clapping and admiring the skills of those on show, crowds at the Ryder Cup are encouraged to be vocal and get behind their team, creating an electric atmosphere that energises the players and adds fire to the competition.  Particularly in America, the passion of the competition flows from the supporters.   Players are harangued and heckled by fans looking to intimidate their rivals.  The bad blood at the 1999 tournament, now known as the Battle of Brookline, was so evident that there was a green invasion towards the end of the Sunday.  The fans at this year’s tournament were widely praised for being enthusiastic and getting behind their team – with surely some of the loudest cheers that part of rural Perthshire have ever seen.  The Ryder Cup takes the energy of a football game and transports it to a golf course, and the results are fantastic.

Europe won this year’s Ryder Cup again, with a solid and relatively unchallenged defence of the title they snatched from the jaws of defeat in what became known as the Miracle at Medinah two years ago.  There USA went into Sunday 10-6 ahead needing only four and a half points out of twelve to win only their second title in thirteen years, but a spirited fightback from Europe saw them win the title outright in remarkable circumstances, with Francesco Molinari holing a putt on the 18th green in the final game to halve with Tiger Woods and secure the title for Europe.

Jamie Donaldson was the man with the honour this year, with an amazing approach shot on the 15th making winning the hole such a certainty that his opponent Keegan Bradley was left with no option but to concede the game and with that the Ryder Cup.  It wasn’t quite as dramatic this year, with the outcome rarely in doubt over the course of the Sunday as it ended 16½-11½ to Europe but it was certainly another great festival of what golf can be.

I think there should be more Ryder Cup-esque tournaments in golf, that add to the prestige of things.  Match play is all the more intriguing than stroke play, and I think it could be a great way of getting people involved with the drama it can have.  Tennis has the Davis Cup, so why can’t golf do something similar?  With golf’s inclusion in the Olympics in 2016, as well, I think it would be a shame if organisers stuck to just a simple competition rather than giving the sport’s more dramatic side a chance to shine on the biggest stage of all.

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