News & Opinion

Expect Ryder rage, just not from captains

American Steve Stricker and Europe's Padraig Harrington play nice in run-up to Whistling Straits

The Ryder Cup is a lot more fun when it’s uncivil. At least, that’s the way it looks.

The late, great Seve Ballesteros, who seemingly got up and down from inside a bush or a ball washer, irritated the ever-loving bejeezus out of the Americans, even as a captain – especially as a captain.

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U.S. captain Steve Stricker, who is not exactly the fiery type, might be able to summon some inner heat for next year’s Ryder Cup showdown with the Europeans.

Lanny Wadkins, who was presented with a wheelbarrow by captain Jack Nicklaus in 1984 after the 1983 Ryder Cup because Wadkins seemingly had stones so big that he needed something in which to haul them around.

Ian Poulter, eyes popping out of his head and veins bulging from his neck so much that it made him easy for Americans to root against – even in events other than the Ryder Cup.

The “War by the Shore” at Kiawah Island in 1991 … well, the Americans’ camo might have been just a little inappropriate.

Sunday at Brookline in 1999, when Justin Leonard made a putt that must have been a mile long that would secure the cup for the U.S. And, yes, the Americans had to apologize for the over-the-top celebration before Jose Maria Olazabal had yet to putt.

Paul Azinger, who as a player and a captain loved the Ryder Cup more than perhaps anyone and needed to beat the Europeans more than he needed to eat when he was hungry.

Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy, whose screaming, finger-wagging singles match in 2016 set a standard for what it means to compete your heart out and put your arm around the other guy when it’s over.

That’s what makes the Ryder Cup so compelling to watch – and, even more so, to play.

The PGA of America got the 2020 captains together on Tuesday for a one-year-away event at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., knowing that it’s never too early to talk about the Ryder Cup.

If next year’s match is to be contentious, it won’t come from the captains. Steve Stricker couldn’t make an enemy if he were on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. And Padraig Harrington is so fun and smart and engaging and thoughtful that you could talk to him – more likely, listen to him talk – for hours.

But make no mistake: the two of them are as competitive as they come, or else they wouldn’t have such successful playing careers. And they certainly wouldn’t have been chosen as captains if they didn’t have some kind of measurable fire.

Because the captains won’t hit a shot in the Ryder Cup, it will be left to the players to take what their respective captains ignite and make it come ablaze. And the cast is likely to change markedly. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson likely will be assistant captains. Poulter, too. Both teams are likely to have some rookies who will be pitched into the cauldron right away.

Harrington was a rookie in 1999 at Brookline. He made the team in the final two weeks of the qualifying period with a pair of second-place finishes, making a putt on the final hole of the second one.

“[It] still goes down as probably the most electrifying week I've ever had on a golf course,” he said. “It was just so exciting, the atmosphere, the buzz of it. It was quite a contentious one in Brookline, but it was in Boston, so I had a lot of Irish support. Just everything about that Ryder Cup [except] the result was just spectacular.”

Harrington beat Mark O’Meara in the singles on the final day, and he thought he had secured the winning point for the Europeans because Olazabal was 4 up on Leonard. “Once we had that point in the bag, which I wasn't obviously following the leaderboards; I assumed that,” he said.

“Literally, I did an interview on the back of 18, thinking I got the winning point, and maybe five minutes later – literally five minutes later – I'm just about to sit down, or just sat down on the 17th green, when Justin Leonard holed that putt, and it was all taken away.”

Even experiencing a stinging team defeat, Harrington was immediately able to see the value of being part of what some people call the greatest sporting event in the world.

“The highs and lows were exceptional,” Harrington said. “You'd never see it in any other event like it, and that's why we love Ryder Cup. I think that's why people, not just golf fans, love the Ryder Cup.

“That's why sports fans love the Ryder Cup. It's dramatic, exciting. The ebbs and flows in it, there's just nothing quite like it. You get to root for your home country, your home continent. Really, it's spectacular, and you know, once you play one, you'd never want to miss out on another one.”

Said Stricker in his characteristic unassuming way, “This event, it brings out some crazy emotions in you as a player.” At the very least.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf


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