BOSTON — A bid to restore golf, an Olympic sport at the turn of the century, to the 1996 Atlanta Games fell short earlier this decade. "No matter," was the golfing community's basic refrain. Why? Because in the men's Ryder Cup and women's Solheim Cup competitions, the sport has two riveting global dramas.
They are held in alternating years, and this week (Sept. 26-28) the men take their turn with the Ryder matches.
Before heading off to Spain to captain the United States team that will take on the Europeans, Tom Kite observed, "It wasn't long ago that the Ryder Cup was a little get-together."
A veteran of seven Ryder Cups, Kite came aboard in 1979. Until then, it was a yawn-inducing two-nation affair. The Americans dominated their British rivals. In 1979, however, a decision was made to expand the geography and test the Americans against the best Europe could offer.
Four years later, the US scored its closest victory in years (14-1/2 points to 13-1/2), then relinquished the cup in 1985 and 1987 as the new tooth-and-nail era settled in. Now the tension on the final day consistently turns palms sweaty and produces some of the globe's best athletic dramas - a situation no doubt enhanced by the mano-a-mano match play format.
"It's a pretty awesome golf tournament, creating the most interest of any tournament in the world," Kite says.
Both sides send Dream Teams onto the fairways, selecting the top 10 players on the US and European pro tours, then adding two additional players each picked by the nonplaying captains.
"You almost feel like your career is not going to be complete if you don't make the team at least once," says Tom Lehman, who is making his second appearance on a US side that boasts Masters champion Tiger Woods, British Open champion Justin Leonard, and PGA Championship winner Davis Love III.
That's a lot of firepower, and European captain Seve Ballesteros might be hard-pressed to match it. Three of the biggest non-American names in golf belong to Greg Norman (Australia), Ernie Els (South Africa), and Nick Price (Zimbabwe), who are ineligible for the Ryder Cup, and must wait until next year to play in the Presidents Cup, a biennial, safety-net event that since 1994 has pitted the US against an International team of non-Europeans.
Kite says American fans and media members tend to underestimate the Europeans because "they haven't heard of them," or at least the ones who stick close to home. Among the lesser-knowns, though, are a sprinkling of names and faces that register with many American golf watchers, including Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer, Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal, and wild-card selections Nick Faldo and Jesper Parnevik. It's a nice mix, with players from England, Scotland, Sweden, Wales, Germany, Denmark, Northern Ireland, and Italy.
Without picking up a club, Ballesteros will be a center of attention. During his competitive heyday, he was the Palmer or Nicklaus of Spain. But while placing his country on the golf map, he wasn't always appreciated as much by the non-golfing public as perhaps hoped.
Having the Ryder Cup in Spain is something of a personal coup, therefore, since Ballesteros was certainly influential in the decision to go outside the US or Britain for the first time in the cup's 70-year history. "It is very possible that if I hadn't played the 1983 match, the Ryder Cup would not be what it is now.," he says. That was the year his presence practically ended the Americans' long winning streak.
While Ballesteros may have primed the European golf charge, he has no doubts about who its leader was two years ago - fellow Masters champion Faldo. "Nick opened the door for us to win the Ryder Cup," says Ballesteros, remembering the the Englishman's heroics in Rochester, N.Y. In a crucial, final-day match, Faldo won the last three holes to defeat Curtis Strange as the Europeans claimed the Cup, 14-1/2 to 13-1/2, in the fifth straight hairs-breadth decision.
Faldo's game has lost its edge this year; He has not finished in the top 20 in any of the major tournaments. Ballesteros, however, recognizes a clutch player when he sees one, and even with no prize money on the line, he wanted Faldo.
In a joint confirmation of their stature in the game, Faldo and Ballesteros last week became the first players elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame through the international ballot.
Kite, in a not-surprising effort to defuse some of the pressures on his team, claims the Europeans "have a huge advantage" because they've played the Valderrama Golf Club, which has been voted the best course in Europe. Each year the European circuit plays its Volvo Masters tournament at this picturesque stretch on the Costa del Sol, where Woosnam, Langer, Montgomerie, and Olazabal have all chalked up victories.
Trees that overhang the fairways and greens, Kite says, make the course play tighter than some American courses. On the other hand, the course is actually the design of famous US golf architect Robert Trent Jones, who incorporated the fast greens familiar to Americans. "They are very used to Valderrama-style greens," Faldo says.
Rather than show up cold, some Americans slipped off to play Valderrama while overseas for this summer's British Open.
Of the 24 players slated to tee off, nine will be playing in their first Ryder Cup, including Tiger Woods, who previously won three consecutive US Amateur titles in match-play tournaments.
Kite resists the temptation to lean on Woods, though, saying, "I'm looking for a couple of guys to show some leadership. Love, [Fred] Couples, Lehman, and [Mark] O'Meara are my veterans. They've all got to play well."
Ryder Cup Facts, Figures, and Format
What: Men's biennial team competition between the United States and Europe.
When: Sept. 26-28
Where: Valderrama Golf Club in Soto-grande, Spain, near the Rock of Gibraltar.
TV coverage (in US): Friday on USA network, Saturday and Sunday on NBC.
History: British seed merchant Samuel A. Ryder donated a trophy in 1927 for a shootout between US and British pros. In 1979, the British-Irish team expanded to all Europeans. The US has won 23 of 31 matches and two have ended in ties, with the defending champion retaining the cup. Against Europe, the US leads, 6-3.
The spoils: The cup (no prize money).
European roster: Seve Ballesteros (capt.); Colin Montgomerie; Darren Clarke, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Per-Ulrik Johannson, Lee Westwood, Ignacio Garrido, Thomas Bjorn, Constantino Rocca, Jose Maria Olazabal, Nick Faldo, and Jesper Parnevik.
US roster: Tom Kite (capt.), Tiger Woods, Justin Leonard, Tom Lehman, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson, Jeff Maggert, Mark O'Meara, Scott Hoch, Brad Faxon, Fred Couples, and Lee Janzen.
Format: Match play rather than cumulative scoring. Pairs of golfers from each team square off the first two days. Half are alternate-shot matches, in which the two players on each side take turns hitting one ball; and the other half are better-ball matches, in which each member of the two-man team plays his own ball and the better hole score counts. Each match won is worth a point, ties are half a point. Sunday is devoted to 12 singles matches. The first team to 14-1/2 points wins.