Plenty stars, no spine

In the broad sweep of history, the United States president trumps an English seed merchant called Samuel Ryder, but within the narrower confines of the golfing world there is no contest. The Ryder Cup wins every time — for drama, for passion and for authenticity.

But nothing is forever, not even a sport so attached to tradition, which is why the European Tour, for which the Ryder Cup provides a huge financial windfall every two years, should take nothing for granted.

If they do, then a visit last week to San Francisco, site of the 2009 Presidents Cup, put an end to the complacency. Over the next four days at Harding Park, a municipal golf course on the outskirts of the city, a team from the US competed against a squad of international players (translation: everywhere but Europe) for the eighth edition of an event that was first staged in 1994.

Many of the world’s best players, including Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, on the US team, and Geoff Ogilvy and Ernie Els, on the international team, appeared, as did Greg Norman and Fred Couples, the two captains. Michael Jordan, the former National Basketball Association star and friend of Woods, was drafted in as vice-captain of the US team. ”His role was to have fun with the guys. He’s certainly not telling them how to hit a chip shot,” Couples said.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton showed up on the practice range and there were rumours that Barack Obama, the tournament’s honorary chairman and a golf fanatic, could make an appearance. In other words, the Presidents Cup does not lack star power. But what it does lack is credibility in the eyes of some.

”I think that this event, like the Ryder Cup, has some unique characteristics. There are definitely some things we could learn from this event,” says Richard Hills, the European Tour’s Ryder Cup director, who was in San Francisco as an observer.

Such diplomacy abounds, but privately some of the players have been grumbling about the value of an event that pits a US team against a team with no obvious bond other than the fact they are not American and they play on the PGA Tour. In the Ryder Cup the rivalry is unmissable.

”There is an animosity between Europe and the US. It’s a traditional rivalry, whereas with the international team it has taken a few more years to develop because a bunch of the guys haven’t played together before,” said Ogilvy, who pointed out that one of the problems is that the event has been fairly one-sided in its short history (which has seen the US winning five of the seven played). ”If we win a couple of close ones then that will help. All events develop their own history.”

They do, but as far as the PGA Tour is concerned the sooner this history is established the better. According to the Tour’s website, ”the Presidents Cup was developed to give the world’s best non-European players an opportunity to compete in international team match-play competition”. This is only half of the truth. The other half is about money and the politics of international golf.

The Ryder Cup, one of the game’s most lucrative events, is owned and operated jointly by the European Tour and the PGA of the US — an accident of history that left the PGA Tour, the game’s most powerful organisation, on the outside looking in.

Its response was to establish the Presidents Cup with the aim, albeit unspoken, of supplanting the Ryder Cup. So far it has fallen short for the reasons identified by Ogilvy, but also for other reasons that were patently obvious last week.

For instance, Jordan’s presence as vice-captain may add to the so-called star power, but what does it say about the seriousness of the competition? The aim is to hole putts, not shoot free-throws, after all.

There is also the question of atmosphere. Harding Park is a magnificent setting for any golf tournament and the furniture of a major tournament — the hospitality tents and media facilities — are all present and correct. But there is something lacking in atmosphere. There is no edge, no sense of anticipation. Practice days at the Ryder Cup are infused with both — that much is obvious in the faces of the players.

Pacing the fairways during practice rounds, the players looked as though they were out for a relaxed 18 holes with their mates. If they don’t take the event seriously, how can they expect the fans to?

The answer, according to Couples, is obvious. ”This is a fun event, not so gruelling [as the Ryder Cup] where it is five days of saying some word to someone and it gets blown out of proportion and they hate you. And then you go to Europe and they hate you. That’s not going to happen here,” the US captain said.

”But wait until people get into it. The crowd senses no animosity, no hard feelings. But they root just as hard.” —

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