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Ryder Cup preview: Why golf’s ‘gentle game’ days are over

Not all Ryder Cups are gracious affairs. The upcoming edition of the keenly awaited bi-annual US versus Europe team event is certain to be a slugfest

Ludvig Aberg of Sweden poses with the trophy of the European Masters Golf Tournament DP World Tour, in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. Omega European Masters winner Aberg will play the Ryder Cup three months after turning pro.(AP)

By Meraj Shah

LAST PUBLISHED 13.09.2023  |  07:30 AM IST

Tickets to the spectator galleries are sold out. The air in Rome is rife with anticipation. Come the end of September and members of the sporting public will throng the amphitheatre—the Marco Simone Club—where 12 of the finest European golf professionals will assemble to face their quarries from across the Atlantic Ocean.

A few of these men have been here before and they remember, all too well, the last time these two sides clashed in 2021. That was the time Continentals were routed— The Massacre at Winged Foot—and suffered a 10-point defeat (19.5 - 10.5). That scar is unlikely to fade anytime soon. It remains the most comprehensive defeat suffered by either side in nearly five decades.

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Unsurprisingly the drubbing still casts a shadow over the European squad—clearly considered the underdogs despite having the home advantage in 2023. Or at least they were, until Viktor Hovland went and demolished the PGA Tour’s most elite field to win the 2023 FedEx Cup in August. Over the past couple of months, the winds have shifted perceptibly in the Europeans’ favour. Will they avenge the defeat at Winged Foot or be vanquished at home?

Of course, this is dramatic overkill. But it is shaping up to be quite a buildup to the most exciting matchplay event in the world. Even by its own yardstick, this year’s Ryder Cup has been exceptionally anticipated. The vines are abuzz: you can’t switch on a sports channel without running into a golf pundit commenting on the Captains’ picks, or go on social media forums and not come across posts of fans tittering in a breathless way about potential match-ups.

The most serious of the lot—the punters—have been keenly calculating odds on everything from pairings, results and scores. The Ryder Cup—that keenly awaited bi-annual US versus Europe team event—is about to keep its September date at the Marco Simone Golf Club in Italy and one thing is certain: it’s going to be a slugfest, not a convivial contest. Golf’s ‘gentle game’ days are well and truly over.

Those who lament the demise of that singular trait in the game’s character are aware that it’s not a new phenomenon. Neither is ruthless competitiveness a uniquely American contribution to the game. No other player has pushed gamesmanship to the degree that Seve Ballesteros did—especially at the Ryder Cup. At the Belfry in 1989, the Spanish maestro repeatedly clashed with Paul Azinger in their crucial singles match. It all began when Ballesteros tried to change a ball that was scuffed. Azinger objected and the referee agreed. “Is this the way you want to play today?" Ballesteros cried. The Spaniard got his own back by insisting that Azinger carried out an improper drop after hitting his approach on the 18th hole in the water. Azinger won by a stroke but Europe retained the trophy.

Azinger never forgot that loss and got his own back at the same venue in 1993. Trailing Nick Faldo in a crucial match, Azinger managed a halve after two spectacular birdies on the last three holes and the US went on to retain the Ryder Cup.

In recent history, no edition is as memorable as what has been dubbed the ‘Miracle at Medinah,’ in 2012. Trailing 10-4 with two four-balls to go on the penultimate day, the Europeans staged a stunning comeback headlined by a fist-pumping Ian Poulter who birdied each of the last five holes to overturn a two-hole deficit. Poulter and partner Rory McIlroy’s triumph over Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson injected new life in the Europeans who retained the Cup after winning a near impossible 8.5 points from 12 matches on the final day. That Ryder Cup and his inspired performance have gone on to define Poulter’s legacy.

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Cut to the present. If they began the year as underdogs, the Europeans have suddenly pulled alongside the more fancied American team. Leading the squad is the formidable trio of Irishman McIlroy, third-ranked player in the world Jon Rahm and FedEx Cup winner Viktor Hovland. Then there’s Ludvig Aberg: the prodigy who’s achieved what none of his illustrious seniors in the team have — no one in the history of the game has landed a spot on a Ryder Cup team within months of turning pro.

Aberg, 23, who was an amateur less than three months back, has never played a Major event, and just won his first professional event—the European Masters—earlier this month is a bonafide phenom. Belying his young years, Aberg displays none of the naked aggression that’s become du jour amongst Gen-Z players. On the contrary, his unflappable yet gentle demeanour might be just what the Europeans need in a charged atmosphere. Especially since the Americans can be expected to turn up the heat and the gamesmanship.

Given how unlikely it is to happen again, perhaps it’s appropriate to recount the most retold piece of Ryder Cup lore, an exemplary piece of sportsmanship popularly known as ‘The Concession.’ It’s 1969. Both teams are sitting level at 15.5 points each and there’s only one match left—Jack Nicklaus against the Open Champion Tony Jacklin. On the final green, both players are tied and Nicklaus holes a five-footer to ensure a halve and that the US would retain the Cup. Jacklin has a short putt to tie but Nicklaus, in a grand gesture, picks up Jacklin’s golf ball and shakes his hand. “You would not have missed that anyway, but I was not going to give you an opportunity to do so," Nicklaus is believed to have told Jacklin. It’s unlikely we’ll see that kind of gesture in Rome this month. But you never know.

Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer, golfer and television producer.

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