Why The Ryder Cup Is The One Golf Tournament You Have To Watch

All the jingoism and excitement of the Olympics, but with funnier outfits.

Jeff Haynes / Reuters

“I trust that the effect of this match will be to influence a cordial, friendly and peaceful feeling throughout the whole civilized world… I look upon the Royal and Ancient game as being a powerful force that influences the best things in humanity.” — Samuel Ryder

There aren’t enough competitions as fiercely divisive and hotly contested as the Ryder Cup in the world of sports. For 103 weeks at a time, the game of golf — even at the highest level — is relatively peaceful. It’s relaxing to watch, and the best players in the game make near impossible shots look easy on a regular basis. For their toils, winners carry home fat checks and enjoy the global notoriety the professional game has garnered in the last few decades. Just last weekend, Brandt Snedeker took home $11.44 million dollars for winning the Tour Championship at East Lake, and in turn, the FedEx Cup, the PGA’s recently installed “playoff prize.”

The Ryder Cup flips the script entirely. There is no prize money awarded, and only national pride is at stake. Two teams — one American, one European — meet every two years to determine who owns the game of golf.

“A regular tour event is a 35-foot dive off a cliff, a major is a 50-foot dive, and the Ryder Cup is a 100-foot dive.” — American Johnny Miller, two time Ryder Cup winner

Golf is not a team sport, which might be the reason the Ryder Cup is so intriguing — the best players in the world, for once, have to play for each other, instead of for themselves. Over the course of three frantic days, beginning this Friday, there will be eight foursome matches (two players per team alternate shots using a single ball, the team with the lowest score wins the hole), eight fourball matches (each match is contested by two teams of two player, but each player uses his own ball, and the team counts the lowest score for each hole), and 12 singles matches (an American versus a European, mano-a-mano, using standard match play rules).

The winners of each match earn a point for their team (in the case of a tie, a 1/2 point is awarded to each team), and the first team to 14.5 points retains Samuel Ryder’s cup (he donated it in 1927) for the next two years.

The Americans dominated the competition for decades after World War II, led by iconic players like Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, and Jack Nicklaus, when the competition was just between Americans and a team consisting of golfers from Great Britain and Ireland. In 1979, for the first time, the International team was opened up to players all over Europe, representing a sea change in American Ryder Cup fortunes.

Led by Seve Ballesteros, the victorious 1985 European team ushered in an era of international dominance. Team Europe has held the cup for 18 of the last 27 years — including the last two — after the Europeans edged the Americans 14.5-13.5 in Wales in 2010. Moreover, the stronghold Americans once had over the official World Golf Rankings has all but completely eroded. Tiger Woods, who held the No. 1 ranking for years at a time, has been surpassed by the likes of Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Luke Donald of England, suggesting the United States may no longer be the metropole of golf we believe it to be.

On Friday morning, the first four fourball and four foursome matches will be played, with eight points available for the taking. A team can’t win the Ryder Cup on the first day, obviously, but it come pretty close to giving it away, as the Europeans did in 2008.

“Did you ever try to hit a golf ball without any oxygen in your system?” — Billy Casper, captain of the 1979 American team

What separates the Ryder Cup most from any other golf tournament in the world is the overbearing pressure, and the sense that every single shot — from Friday to Sunday — is meaningful. Davis Love III, Team USA’s captain this year, equates the pressure of a Ryder Cup to the final nine holes of a major, except that those waves of crippling emotion start on the opening hole. Think about it this way: On a normal weekend, if Tiger Woods sprays a drive into the bunker and drop a shot, the only penalty is that he may drop down the leaderboard and forfeit a few thousand dollars in earnings. If he drops a shot this weekend, he’s failing his team, and his country.

Last night, during the opening ceremonies, Love quipped to the media to “remember that these matches aren’t played for life and death.” Love assuredly said it half-jokingly, but between the ropes that line the fairways and separate the legions of fans from the players, amid the din of “U-S-A. U-S-A” and “Olé, Olé, Olé” chants, it’s all to easy to forget that it’s just a game.

In 1999, the Americans executed the biggest final-day comeback in Ryder Cup history, but the intensity of their celebrations reveals just how much the Cup itself really means. The competition came down to the last singles match on the course, Justin Leonard versus Jose Maria Olazabal, and Olazabal needed to win the match outright for team Europe to win overall. On the 17th hole, Leonard drained a hail-mary putt halve the hole with Olazabal, and push the match to the 18th hole. Simply at the sight of Leonard’s long putt dropping, the entire American team — a bunch of adult men, and golfers at that — charged the green and acted like a bunch of college kids that had just won a national championship. American captain Ben Crenshaw dropped to his hands and knees and kissed the ground in joy.

In the world of golf, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

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