Ryder Cup lacks a Seve to put fire in our bellies


TIPPING POINT:This is the first Ryder Cup since the passing of Seve Ballesteros. The perennial event could do with some of his charisma and pomp, writes BRIAN O'CONNOR

WHAT DID the Yanks ever do to Spain? You know, besides run up San Juan Hill: and that Cuban barney wasn’t so much a war as a tiff. It’s not like B-29s ever buzzed Madrid half a century later on the back of it. Instead Eisenhower dropped in for a visit. Nixon thought Franco was great, called him a true friend of America. The Generalissimo might have been a fascist loon but one thing he was not was a goddam commie.

Franco hadn’t much time for the province of Cantabria and probably never even heard of the tiny village of Pedrena. But its most famous citizen was no fan of “Los Yanquis”. In fact Seve Ballesteros spent much of his glittering career defining himself by what Americans thought about him, or what he thought they thought about him.

That “car-park champion” tag bugged the golfing matador more than was healthy. The fact they later invited him to leave the PGA tour for the hardly irrelevant reason that he failed to show up for enough tournaments sent Ballesteros “tonto”. And Seve angry was a sight to behold.

Even to those of us who would rather cuddle a urinary-tract infection than watch golf, the great man’s charisma was undeniable. Ballesteros was a sporting force of nature. And it was the Ryder Cup’s great fortune that its full visceral Yank-loathing fury revolved around the biennial whirlwind of trans-continental flag-waving between Europe and the United States.

Seve defined the modern-day Ryder Cup beast. Before he came along, the US were content to show up every couple of years, beat the snot out of GB and Ire, and go home after a nice week off, back to the tournament play that mattered.

But Ballesteros was so good, GB and Ire morphed into Europe, a move that initially promised not so much to change the result but at least narrow the winning margin a bit. Except Seve made it resoundingly personal, and in doing so created something of a metal-wooded, v-necked monster. He was never one to do things by halves.

Ballesteros won five Majors, one less than Nick Faldo. But it is the Spaniard who remains undisputedly the most important European golfer ever. One of the main reasons for that is that he was the trail-blazer, the one who believed absolutely he was perfectly entitled to beat the top Americans. The other is that he managed to sufficiently inculcate that entitlement to a bunch of comparably middle-of-the-road colleagues and so turned the Ryder Cup into a meaningful contest.

For over two decades that was its central appeal on this side of the pond: plucky Euros beating the odds to slam those flash, arrogant Yanks with their cocksure certainty that the world begins and ends at the Portlands.

It helped that the Americans bought into it too. At the same time as military muscle was starting to be flexed overseas, the patriot brigade could aggressively wave the flag at those darn “Yer-peens” – “USA-USA-USA.”

It was damn entertaining for a while. So many stereotypes were confirmed. Justin Leonard doing that sweaty, white-man-over-bite legger around the green; rednecks chanting at Colin Montgomorie; Olazabal doing the rumba; great stuff, all of it.

And it mattered, mainly because it so plainly mattered to Seve, so much so that when Europe lost, it wasn’t hard to picture him going home to Pedrena and not leaving a darkened room for quite a while.

Long after his playing pomp, Ballesteros continued to inject the animus into the event. That non-playing captain role in Valdarama was notable more for its eye-popping desperation than any cool authority but by God it was enthralling.

However, Seve is dead now. This will be the first Ryder Cup since his passing. Does the whole thing matter as much anymore? You don’t have to be Tiger Woods to believe not, although the most successful golfer of his generation being so obviously ho-hum about the event hardly does it any favours. It’s not just that though: not by a long way.

Maybe it’s because it’s not on terrestrial TV these days: or because the Euros aren’t the perennial underdogs any more. Maybe it’s middle-aged familiarity – it seems to come around very fast these days. Or maybe it’s because the flag-waving isn’t enough, at least not for this week’s away team.

Are we really supposed to wrap the blue around ourselves? Feel the sort of collective European identity that gave Napoleon and Hitler those disastrous wet dreams, and ignore the cultural diversity that continues to be reflected in the most jagged-bordered continent on the planet?

Considering the sweat that has been built up recently over the question of national identity, it seems wishful thinking to believe that a dozen polo-shirts traipsing around Medinah are going to exercise minds from Ulster to the Urals, bar the most fanatical of the membership. Or is it the European Tour that is supposed to be the focus of people’s proprietary interest: a hard-headed corporate enterprise that ranges to other distant continents at the hard-nosed commercial whim of those with the biggest prize-fund? Try wrapping your blue around that.

It’s not as if the US and European Tours are self-contained entities. Most of the players traverse them with ease. The idea the PGA will ever give McIlroy the boot is ludicrous, even if he only lands in the US just once a month to re-fuel the Lear. But of course Rory actually prefers playing in America, likes the vibe over there, and the money no doubt, and probably knows the words to the Starspangled Banner off-pat by now. G-Mac’s the same. Luke Donald is only an infrequent visitor home, Justin Rose the same.

The notion that getting the best golfers from Europe and the US together on the one patch is some kind of rarity is ridiculous, a blast of nostalgia comparable to what the football World Cup used to be 40 years ago, when the best South American were exotic unknowns up until the event itself.

Now anyone that can keep a tennis ball up a hundred times on the Copacabana has an agent in London passing out DVDs of his clients best bits.

What the Ryder Cup really means is TV gold for Sky. “The Biggest Rivalry in Golf” they’re billing it as. And there’s still enough of the old edge from that golden period of the “War on the Shore” and “Battle of Brookline” to make it a not completely ridiculous claim – just about. But everyone knows the biggest rivalry in golf now is Rory V Tiger. And they’re being so nice to each other it’s enough to make you lose your Cheerios.

But you never know, the Spanish might inject a little tosigo into things. Olazabal is no shrinking violet and has never seemed overly fond of the Yanks himself, probably a consequence from hanging around Seve all those years.

It won’t be the same though. The chippy thing is gone. There’s no surprise any more when Europe win. And the players don’t give a continental what the Yanks think of them anymore. Which is obviously a good thing, and perhaps as good a memorial to Seve as he would ever have wanted.

But he’s going to be missed all the same.

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