Europe stands as one at the Ryder Cup - but what about Brexit?
Tens of thousands of British fans travelled to France to dress up in blue-and-yellow
Team Europe fans during the Fourballs match on day two of the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National. Photograph: PA
The 1st hole of the Albatros course at Le Golf National runs 420 yards, down around a dogleg curve that turns away from the large pond you have to cross with your second shot to reach the small, sloping green. It looks tricky to play any time, but during the Ryder Cup it was ridiculously tough, what with the packed grandstand behind the tee, the busy galleries either side, and the enormous elephant in the middle of the fairway. Curtis Strange once said that golf doesn’t shout, it whispers. Sometimes it doesn’t speak at all. And in Paris last week there was one topic no one wanted to take on, the same one a lot of us can’t stop talking about.
In an act of spectacular cognitive dissonance, tens of thousands of British fans travelled to France to dress up in blue-and-yellow hats and scarves and scream and roar and sing support for a European team representing a community that, to extrapolate, just under 52 per cent of them had recently voted to get the hell away from. And given the demographics of the average golf club clientele, that estimate is likely to be a couple of clubs short of the green. According to YouGov, the average British golf fan is unusually likely to be a right wing man who has an interest in, among other things, BMWs, business and finance, Jeremy Clarkson and Roy Chubby Brown.
Of course the Ryder Cup team represents Europe rather than the Union, although it so happens that every man who has ever played for the team has come from a full member state. But there’s the letter, and then there’s the spirit. Which was laid out by Thomas Bjørn in his speech at the opening ceremony. “Europe can at times be a fragmented place, but when it comes to the Ryder Cup it’s different, when it comes to the Ryder Cup, Europe stands as one,” Bjørn said. “This is the week more than ever that flag represents the boundary of this great continent.” Bjørn lives in England and has an English girlfriend. He must have known how it sounded.
Bjørn is also far too canny a man to get into a row about it right before the tournament. Later that evening, he managed to reiterate his comments, “I’m a proud European,” while also walking back from them, “but that doesn’t mean that I believe in the European Union or not. I’m not addressing the people of the United Kingdom in any way, shape or form.” The English golfers also refused to touch the issue with a flagstick. “Sorry,” said Paul Casey, his sense of irony sheathed in his golf bag alongside his three wood, “I haven’t thought about it.” He had a good excuse. “I’ve got some matches to play the next couple of days.”
You wonder though, how those Brexit-voting Europe supporters in the crowd squared their support for these two causes. You guess some might resort to the moronic recourse of saying sport and politics should be kept separate. As if sport wasn’t influenced by government policy, as if it existed in abstraction from issues of economics, class, and race. It’s not politics that should be kept out of sport, but politicians. “Congratulations to TeamEurope on a stunning victory” tweeted Theresa May on Sunday, a message that did for irony as Henry Kissinger’s peace prize had done for satire.
No doubt May knows that the story of the Ryder Cup is one of Britain’s pig-headed insistence on going it alone, failing horribly, and, in the end, being rescued by opening up to a partnership with continental Europe. For the first 50 years, it was a contest between Britain and Ireland on the one side and the USA on the other. Before the war, the British and Irish won two matches out of five, after it they managed to win one out of 17. Until, at last, the USA grew bored with it all. In 1979 Tom Weiskopf pulled out of their team so he could go hunting for bighorns in the Canadian Rockies. The sheep, Weiskopf thought, were better sport. The Ryder Cup, he said, was “Lions against Christians.”
Jack Nicklaus spent a lot of time in the mid-1970s trying to persuade the British PGA to allow Europeans on to their team. The British, led by ‘Lord’ Derby, the president of the PGA, wouldn’t budge. They were so wedded to the idea that they could go it alone that they changed the format instead, and still lost by five.
Eventually, Nicklaus realised he had to force the point. The match, he said, was turning into a non-event. “The Americans are quite happy to treat this match as a goodwill gesture, a get-together, a bit of fun,” Nicklaus explained, “But here in Britain it’s treated differently. The people here seem to want a serious, knock-em down match.
“If that’s what’s wanted, there has to be a stronger opposition. Something has to be done to make it more of a match for the Americans.” Something was. The British team was finally opened to European players. In 1979, Seve Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido were on it. And six years later, they finally won one, for the first time in 28 years, with a team containing four Spaniards and a German. Since then, they have won 12 out of the last 17, and Ballesteros, who played in eight Ryder Cups and then captained Europe in 1997, has become such an influential figure that last week the team kept his old golf bag in their locker room, with a badge above it saying “He’s the reason why we are here today”.
You can see why, with a story like that, some people might prefer to kid themselves that sport and politics are best kept apart. Else it might seem too much like a parable they don’t want to hear.