Playing for team and country makes the Ryder Cup golf’s most compelling rivalry

September 26, 2012

The following is the introduction to the new Sports Illustrated E-book, Golf's Greatest Rivalry: The Five Most Memorable Ryder Cups. More information on the book and how to download it is here.

For years now the Ponte Vedra deskmen in their short-sleeved button-downs have tried to sell us on the idea that there are five majors. And there are. But the fifth major on the golf calendar is not the Players Championship. It’s the Ryder Cup.
At the end of the day, when all the divots have been filled and the Golf Channel set has been dismantled, it is the players who decide what’s really important in the game. The rest of us follow their lead. And the players will tell you—with their words, with their body language, with their shots—that the Ryder Cup means as much to them as any other event they play. Or more.
Close your eyes and think of Bernhard Langer’s on-the-low-side anguish in 1991 at Kiawah and Justin Leonard’s draino ecstasy eight years later at the Country Club. Those iconic moments are celebrated in this Sports Illustrated e-book, Golf’s Greatest Rivalry. That moment when the wee Welshman Ian Woosnam, champagne and mucous spewing out of his nostrils as he celebrated Europe’s victory at the K Club in 2006? That moment, thank goodness, is nowhere to be found.
The reason the Ryder Cup is so important to the players is rooted in their misspent youths. When other schoolboy athletes, the so-called real athletes, were playing basketball and football and soccer, the golfers were on the range, earbuds in their canals, doing the lonely, methodical boring groove that leads to golfing excellence. They didn’t get the Little League pizza parties. They didn’t get the postgame kegger. They didn’t get the überintense we-are-family moment that envelops anyone who has ever played on a team. Flash forward. Now they’re playing catch-up.
When he was in his prime, Tiger Woods sleepwalked through the Ryder Cup because it didn’t fit with his overarching goals. To catch Jack Nicklaus, he knew he needed to be a lone wolf. In 2006, after Tiger won the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston, I asked him about Ryder Cup play and what it meant to him. Woods responded to my question with a question of his own: “What’s Jack’s Ryder Cup record?” I didn’t know. I knew Nicklaus had 18 majors, of course, but I didn’t know his Ryder Cup record. And that was Tiger’s point. The Ryder Cup did not define a career. These days, however, he’s more worried about the person than the career. These days Tiger is looking to make friends. Getting yourself on a roster is an excellent way to make that happen.
In the first of the five pieces in this speedy book (11,000 words and exquisite photography), Jaime Diaz writes about the thoroughly unexpected result in the 1987 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, where the U.S. lost for the time on home soil. Some of the names in Diaz’s story have been almost lost in the blur of time. Eamonn Darcy, legendary Irish golfer, makes an appearance. Do you remember that swing? Ol’ Andy Bean does too. Tom Kite, at the height of his powers, says, "This has nothing to do with money. It's bigger than that. This is playing for Uncle Sam, and Sam expects a lot." Sam lost a home game that year and the Ryder Cup was never the same. You’ll enjoy revisiting that match, regardless of your rooting interest.
The second piece, by John Garrity, covers the 1991 Ryder Cup, when the U.S. won at Kiawah. What a Cup, and what a story. David Feherty was there—as a player for the European team. Garrity captures Mark Calcavecchia’s pain in this poignant quote: “I’ve had enough tension this week to last a lifetime.”
The third piece is about one of the most famous comebacks in the history of sport: the U.S. victory in the ’99 Ryder Cup at Brookline, where Ben Crenshaw had a feeling on Saturday night and Leonard dropped a bomb on Sunday afternoon. You’ll revisit the U.S. team, when it looked to all  the world as if the Europeans would waltz to victory. On that Saturday night, in front of the players and their spouses and the captain and his assistants, Davis Love III’s wife, Robin, invoked the words made famous by Crenshaw’s teacher, Harvey Penick: “Take dead aim.” And that’s what the Americans did. Go team.

In the fourth piece, Alan Shipnuck captures all the nuttiness of the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, near Detroit, where U.S. captain Hal Sutton put on his big black cowboy hat, paired Tiger and Phil Mickelson disastrously and got his butt kicked all the way back to Shreveport. That was the year skinny Chris Riley asked to be benched, citing exhaustion, and Sutton, after a 61/2–11/2 first-day drubbing, said, “I’m going to have to put that cowboy hat back on. This time I may get out the reins.”

So, four pieces into the book the score is Europe 2, U.S. 2. Who is going to win this best-of-five series? You’re going to have to read the book and find out for yourself. I will give you some hints, though. Tiger’s not playing, but he does send a text to the U.S. captain, which reads, “KICK THEIR F—— ASSES.”
At the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, where Tiger will be playing for Love, he’ll be wearing his Buddhist bracelet, dropping flower petals along the fairway and flashing the piece sign after he holes key putts.
No, no, no, no, no. I just reread that last paragraph. Something doesn’t sound right. Here’s what’s wrong: Tiger will not be playing for Love. He will be playing for Team USA, on the heels of the Olympics, with a new football season under way and playoff baseball on the horizon. He’s going to be on a team. And any Ryder Cup golfer will tell you: There’s nothing like being on a team.

Download Sports Illustrated's new E-book, Golf's Greatest Rivalry, to read the original SI stories from the five most memorable Ryder Cups since Europe joined the fray in 1979.