Ryder Cup shows what fans crave: competition

Many think of sports as simply about winning. That's too narrow. Sports gets vastly more intriguing when viewed not as solely about triumph but as about competition. And sports without equality in competition is marriage without love, salt without pepper, Mutt without Jeff.

Sports with close competition is a perfect joining like a horse and whinny, hope and promise, Hemingway and words.

Herein lies the fascination with and excitement over last weekend's Ryder Cup (golf matches played every other year that have evolved from the US vs. Britain to the US vs. Europe) in Brookline, Mass.

Americans have never given a rip about the Ryder Cup. As recently as 1989, TV rights to the event cost $400,000, which in TV dollars is paltry. Why the lack of interest?

Easy. Competition has been nonexistent. For example, between 1959 and 1983, the US won 13 straight times. Once the Americans steamrolled Britain 23 to 8. In one stretch, the US won 20 of 21 times.

Conventional wisdom would be that as long as the home team is victorious, all is well. Nope. It's boring.

This isn't sports. It's humiliation.

And then the darnedest thing happened: We noticed that the Europeans had won five of the last seven Ryder Cups. Hey, this isn't right. The best players are Americans, which is why most of the Europeans play on the funny little European Tour where the level of play is decidedly inferior.

What happened is that when the competition got interesting, we got interested. Admittedly, the Ryder Cup caught our attention this year like never before when several US team members acted ugly about playing for their country. They preferred cash. The leader of the ingrates, Tiger Woods, so far this year - in tournament winnings only, which doesn't include millions more off-course - has earned $4.6 million. He was joined in the unctuous whining by David Duval ($3.5 million) and Phil Mickelson ($1.6 mil).

Also complaining he should be paid was Mark O'Meara. He was the only one who had standing because he is at poverty's door, his erratic game having only produced about $869,000 this year.

Ben Crenshaw, the team captain, spoke for many on the issue: "To me, it's an honor to play for your country. But I'm from a different generation."

The players' position was met with derision and that was, gratefully, the end of that. But it did get our minds on golf.

Then Europe trounced the Red, White, and Arrogant the first two days of the Ryder Cup, and it looked as if it wouldn't just be another loss but a debacle. Incredibly, the Americans recovered with an amazing show of skill and resolve, ultimately triumphing thanks to a 45-foot putt by Justin Leonard. It was thrilling. But had it been simply another US win, in a long string, we would have ho-hummed.

The American players and fans went bonkers. We usually don't see that in golf. The Europeans were greatly offended. The Daily Mirror in Britain screamed: "United Slobs of America." Oh, please. This from the nation that brings us soccer riots.

In two years, the Ryder will be staged in England with huge attention because it's now a bona fide competition.

Another example of lack of competition breeding contempt is the America's Cup. For 132 years, the US won every time. Nobody cared. It was just another obscure boat race. Then, good grief, in 1983 Australia II whipped the New York Yacht Club's Liberty. We were stunned into paying attention. The race sprung into our consciousness and names like Ted ("Captain Outrageous") Turner and Dennis Conner became familiar. The US won in 1987 but eventually lost again in 1995 (to New Zealand).

Next year, presumably, the US will emerge from the challenge round to contest New Zealand accompanied by wall-to-wall media coverage. Time was you could only learn of the event by reading the small print. Clearly, sport combined with spirited competition is not just good. It's the best.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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