Golf’s Undignified Moment

With the Ryder Cup on our golf radar screens this week Golf Channel is airing a documentary on the most memorable and infamous edition of the Ryder Cup played at Kiawah Island in 1991.  It was captioned by the American promoters at the time as “The War By The Shore”.   You can read in the attached article by John Garrity, who covered this event for Sports Illustrated in 1991, that in spite of what many feel was the most compelling golf competition ever played it had a dark side to it that hangs in the air like a bad pail odor.

Garrity says in his recollections,  “The ‘91 Ryder Cup stoked the competitive fervor…well beyond the norms for athletic rivalry….The opening ceremonies were a paean to the American War Machine…The European golfers, watching from the stage, looked like Soviet dissidents forced to witness a Mayday parade of weaponry in Red Square”.  “Once play got underway, the two sides went at each other with uncharacteristic fury.”  “But mostly I remember the fear, I had seen nervous golfer’s before, but nothing like the boys of Kiawah Island.  European dominance of the Cup had turned the matches into a test of national character, and it was a test that even the best players approached with resentment and anxiety”.

The excessive behavior was not limited to the participants, the fans from both sides displayed rowdy partisanship that was akin to an acrimonious soccer match between sectarian  rivals not a golf competition between friendly allies.  Unfortunately this behavior carried on for years on both sides of the Atlantic and many players were subject to personal verbal abuse at the Ryder Cup and other major competitions.

I distinctly remember watching this competition and sharing Garrity’s basic sentiment, I was appalled at what I witnessed.  It seemed to me that all the vulgarity that was overwhelming professional tennis at the time had finally spilled over into what had been previously a dignified sanctum.  For me the fault laid at the feet of the prime protagonists in 1991, Dave Stockton the intense American Captain and Seve Ballesteros, of blessed memory, whose tenacity and competitive drive had reignited the fortunes of the European Ryder Cup team through the 1980’s.  The characterization of the competition as a war fostered a contentious atmosphere of winning at any cost, without regard to the collateral effect of those costs.  It made for some unbelievable golf drama, but not without it’s very ugly moments.

I watched this documentary by Ross Greenburg which used original TV footage and interviews with the participants to do an admirable job presenting the event very much as it went down.  It was great to see the compelling golf performances but there were once again moments when I cringed and shook my head wondering “what were they thinking” when they behaved like that.

It has taken over 20 years for The Ryder Cup to get back a semblance of it’s dignity and it’s stature as a fairly played international sporting competition.  Jack Nicklaus once said that the thing he loved about golf is that you could spend four hours on the course trying to beat the brains out of the competition and then wrap your arm around the other guy’s shoulder afterward and have a beer together to recount how much you enjoyed the game.  It is my hope that what we will witness at this year’s Ryder Cup at Medinah will move this event closer to that norm.

(Click to read John Garrity’s recounting of the ‘War By The Shore’)

September, 2012

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