Ryder Cup: A Most Un-Golflike Golf Tournament

This Friday in Wales, golf's 2010 Ryder Cup gets under way between the U.S. and Europe. It is the sport's most un-golflike event — filled with cheering, chanting fans, high-fiving, hugging, back-slapping golfers. It has the nationalistic fervor of an Olympic Games. Europe has the home-course advantage; the U.S. is the defending champion. NPR's Tom Goldman reports on the unique nature of this every-two-years event, in which team unity is as big a factor as booming drives and accurate putts.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The Ryder Cup is the most un-golflike event in the sport of golf. Every two years, it pits the top U.S. players against Europe's best golfers, and it turns a highly individual sport into a raucous team competition, with fist-pumping, high-fiving players and roaring, chanting crowds. The drama starts tomorrow. Of course, there's always some pre-match drama, too. And there was plenty of that this year, as NPR's Tom Goldman is going to tell us.

TOM GOLDMAN: The drama actually began last month. Rory McIlroy, the 21-year-old Irish golfing phenom, was asked about a possible head-to-head Ryder Cup meeting with world-number-one-ranked Tiger Woods.

Unidentified Man: Do you fancy your chances in a singles match against him?

Mr. RORY MCILROY (Professional Golfer): Yeah, I would. Yeah. You know, unless his game rapidly improves over the next few weeks, I think anyone on the European team would fancy their chances against him.

GOLDMAN: It wasn't an outrageous statement. Woods was playing crummy golf at the time. But that was then, and this is Ryder Cup week. The assembled media in Wales have taken the comment and run with this storyline: Rory disses Tiger. Tiger snarls back.

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin sides with Tiger. Corey says Rory better watch out.

Mr. COREY PAVIN (Professional Golfer; U.S. Ryder Cup Captain): You know, I think other people have said things to Tiger in the past and have maybe regretted it.

GOLDMAN: Phil jumps in - that's Phil Mickelson, Tiger's U.S. teammate and longtime rival. He calls Rory one of the nicest, classiest guys, and says about Tiger: He gets along with just about everybody, usually because he beats them and he's nice to them when he beats them. Which doesn't really sound like a supportive teammate. Could it be a U.S. rift?

Mr. STEVE EUBANKS (Author): I wouldn't be surprised if it got portrayed that way, but that was not his intention.

GOLDMAN: Author Steve Eubanks knows, however, that everything gets magnified at the Ryder Cup because the world is watching. Eubanks is in Wales this week, covering his sixth Ryder Cup.

Mr. EUBANKS: It is the fourth-largest sporting event in terms of viewership. You got the Olympics, the World Cup, the Super Bowl and the Ryder Cup. Most of those people who are tuning in never watch another golf event. You know, they watch this one because of the national pride that goes with it.

GOLDMAN: And because the Ryder Cup makes robotic golfers come alive.

Unidentified Man: Looks good. Oh, my!

GOLDMAN: Justin Leonard sank his famous 45-foot putt at the 1999 Ryder Cup, and the very un-golflike celebration by the U.S. team rivaled anything seen during college basketball's March Madness. It also prompted the British tabloid headline: United Slobs of America.

Turning 12 golf soloists into a hugging, back-slapping team is the challenge for every Ryder Cup captain. No one ever met that challenge like American Paul Azinger did two years ago, when the Ryder Cup was held in Kentucky.

Azinger was inspired by the way the U.S. Navy trained its elite Navy SEALS. He broke his dozen players into three groups, or pods. Golfers were grouped not by playing ability, but by personality. There was the steady pod, the aggressive pod, the redneck pod, where Azinger put fan favorite and good old boy Boo Weekley.

What was your reaction, Boo, when you heard him explain this the first time?

Mr. BOO WEEKLEY (Professional Golfer): I was lost.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: But Weekley and the others got it once they realized how they were bonding in their pods.

Mr. WEEKLEY: When we ate together, we discussed the golf course together. You know, I mean, we played practice rounds together. The only thing we didn't do is sleep in the same room together

GOLDMAN: It worked. A relaxed U.S. team won the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1999. Veteran Lee Westwood says this year's European team has that same comfort level, and he will lead it, in his words: with chest out and chin up. Westwood and PGA Champion Martin Kaymer will play Americans Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson in Friday's first match. A Tiger Woods-Rory McIlroy smackdown is not on the schedule so far. Ryder Cup fans can only hope.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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