America at Large: Ryder Cup not capturing US audiences

Over there in Europe the competition seems to really matter. Over here, it doesn’t.

In Atlanta last week, Tim Finchem, PGA Tour commissioner and the most powerful man in American golf, delivered his annual state of the nation address. Over the course of a wide-ranging speech, where, amongst other bizarre topics, he touched on the struggling housing market, dwindling television ratings, Tiger Woods's absence, Rory Mcllroy's charisma, and the game's potential for growth at the Rio Olympics, Finchem didn't mention the Ryder Cup once. Not a single time. And nobody batted an eyelid.

Even allowing for the fact the Ryder Cup is run by the PGA of America rather than the Tour, it was still astonishing to hear golf’s head honcho speculate about the sport’s global health yet completely ignore the inter-continental joust that was then just a fortnight away. When Finchem subsequently took questions from reporters, the competition eventually came up, a lone passing reference in the context of concerns about the increased duration of the golf season. As for enquiries about how he thought Tom Watson’s team might fare at Gleneagles, there were none.

Around about the time Finchem spoke, the latest issue of Sports Illustrated hit newsstands and arrived in mailboxes, real and virtual, across the country. It included a column by Michael Bamberger, one of its senior writers, in which he makes, "The Case for . . . The Ryder Cup." Consider how extensive and even overblown the build-up has been in the British and Irish media this past few months and then think on that. America's most celebrated sports magazine actually charged somebody with the task of convincing its readership that this might be something, you know, worth watching.

‘Crossover fans’

“For you crossover fans coming in from the


World Cup

: Ryder Cup is a long-running reality show that features two teams,” writes Bamberger, “the Europeans and the Americans playing hotly contested, jingoistic golf that usually finishes with the Europeans winning by a slim margin only after Englishman

Ian Poulter

agrees to return his eyeballs to their sockets. It doesn’t mean much, but it’s fun.”

Bamberger’s tongue might have been placed firmly in his cheek but he’s spent enough time on the golf beat to know the serious dichotomy between how the Ryder Cup is perceived in America compared to Europe. Over there, it seems to really matter. A lot. Over here, it doesn’t. At all.

Some will argue this is merely a petty by-product of the Europeans winning five out of the last six editions. A reasonable assumption undermined by empirical evidence. Beyond a small, hardcore golf constituency, the star and stripes' triumph under Paul Azinger at Valhalla in 2008 was greeted with the same shrug of national indifference as the litany of recent defeats.

The general air of disdain has much more to do with the dictates of the calendar than the European hegemony. The casual American fan dips into golf from Augusta to August, beginning with the Masters and ending at the USPGA. Witness the audience of less than 2 million that watched the denouement of the FedEx Cup last Sunday. Much like that event, the Ryder Cup suffers simply because it takes place in September, the most hectic and overcrowded month in the American sporting year.

Once the kids return to school, every Saturday is consumed by college gridiron which inspires GAA-standard passion and loyalty. From morning ’til night, dozens of these matches take place in every state and many are shown live on national television. Sunday then brings a slate of NFL fixtures and, befitting the true national sport, that behemoth inevitably dwarfs all-comers. Factor in the intensification of baseball’s pennant races and the ubiquitous NASCAR and you start to understand why, regardless of how thrilling the matchplay might get, dispatches from Scotland next week will be the fifth item on most sports newscasts.

Historically minuscule

Television ratings have been so historically minuscule when the Ryder Cup takes place in Europe that NBC often haven’t bothered to show much of the first two days live. Indeed, such was the concern about the lack of public interest before the showdown at Celtic Manor four years ago, rumours abounded that

Corey Pavin

had come under pressure to select Woods with a captain’s pick for box office rather than golfing reasons.

In spite of Tiger’s absence this time around, the Golf Channel (which is owned by NBC) is breaking new ground by providing live coverage of the morning sessions next Friday. They are hopeful those who watched the compelling drama at Medinah two years ago were smitten enough to rise before dawn this time around.

While Europe’s epic comeback that Sunday yielded the biggest American television audience since Brookline in 1999, it was still not much more than half the number that watched Mcllroy win the USPGA last month.

Since Justin Leonard and his colleagues stomped unceremoniously all over the 17th green 15 years ago then, this event has managed to truly capture the American imagination just once. On that particular occasion in 2006, the Ryder Cup made the front of newspapers that normally don't even given it prominence on their back pages. One of the lead stories on the news, it was, briefly, on everybody's radar. Unfortunately, the fleeting spike in profile and interest was entirely down to the scandal surrounding The Dubliner magazine publishing photographs purporting to be of Woods's then wife Elin rather than anything golf-related.

As succinct a commentary on America’s curious lack of passion for this contest as any.