Sports

Fore Thought

October 07, 2016

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Fore Thought

The American victory in the Ryder Cup was convincing and thoroughly deserved. They played brilliantly, none more so than Patrick Reed and Phil Mickelson. Mickelson may spray his drives wildly, but the quality of his recovery play, chipping, and putting was exceptional. As for Reed, what can one say? His duel, mano a mano, with Rory McIlroy was riveting, as was Mickelson’s with Sergio Garcia—tremendous stuff.

Reed still looks like the fat boy who may have gotten a hard time from bullies at school, and, if he were English, you might expect to see him pinging darts at a board rather than on the golf course, but what an inspiring player. One of the fascinating things about his match with McIlroy was his ability to combine complete composure when addressing the ball with all his crowd-stirring antics when holing a winning putt. He played the galleries superbly while never once losing concentration. He will doubtless win a major someday, but it’s his ability in match-play golf that makes him special. One of the majors really ought to be a match-play tournament, as indeed the PGA was till 1968. I can’t remember why it was switched to the 72-hole stroke-play format, but I suspect the change was demanded by the TV networks. TV certainly didn’t like match play because a lot of matches didn’t reach the 18th green, and some finished quite far back on the course. But TV got it wrong (as it often does). Match play—one against one—is often far more gripping, and after all, in stroke-play tournaments most of the players are out of contention in the last round, their performance of interest to only a few.

“The U.S.A. team won last weekend because they had more good players playing well than their opponents. Simple, really.”

Walter Hagen won the PGA five or six times back in the 1920s, and was undoubtedly one of the greatest match-play golfers of all time, perhaps the greatest. I’ve read that he liked to play long-hitters who would usually outdrive him. If he then put his approach shot on the green, he was putting pressure on his opponent by challenging him to get closer to the pin. This was the story of the Reed-McIlroy match. Time and again Rory’s drive was the longer. Time and again Reed found the green first. I don’t know if the strain told on the Irishman, but a couple of vital putts missed on the inward half suggested that it may have done so. These missed putts were the difference between winning and losing.

Hagen had reportedly a wonderful temperament for match play. He reckoned he might hit seven bad shots in a round. So if he drove into the rough or muffed a chip, he would tell himself, “That’s one of the seven gone,” and feel better. The beauty of match play is, of course, that you can have a couple of duff holes, lose them, and still win the match. The best Hagen story is of the time he was found playing poker at three o’clock in the morning and was told his opponent would have been in bed for hours. “Yeah, but not sleeping,” he replied, picking up his cigar. Apologies to those who know the story, which I have always hoped isn’t apocryphal.

Every Ryder Cup is followed by criticism of the captain of the losing side. It’s a cliché: Winning captains are good, losing ones bad. Winning ones make all the right decisions, losing ones too many bad ones. It’s too simple. More often than not, you lose because the other side played better, as the Americans did at Hazeltine, or because even experienced players—like Justin Rose and Lee Westwood on this occasion—sometimes miss too many putts, especially putts that would have turned their match. There’s nothing captains can do about that.

Captains may be criticized for their selection of wild cards, as Darren Clarke has been. But when he made his picks and left out Russell Knox, currently ranked in the world top 20, the criticism then was often about preferring the young Belgian Thomas Pieters to Knox, not directed at the pick of the experienced Westwood and Martin Kaymer, both with good Ryder Cup records. Well, Pieters played brilliantly, winning two four-balls and one foursome with McIlroy, and beating J.B. Holmes 3 and 2 in the singles. Selection isn’t an exact science. Some in advance criticized Davis Love’s pick of Rickie Fowler, but his defeat of Rose in the fourth singles match checked such momentum as the Europeans had on Sunday afternoon.

Captains shouldn’t always be judged on the outcome. Compare them to generals. Napoleon, Lee, and Rommel lost battles against Wellington, Grant, and Montgomery, but not many would think the victors the greater generals. In both war and sport there are considerations besides generalship. The USA team won last weekend because they had more good players playing well than their opponents. Simple, really.

A lot of the coverage in the British press has dwelled on crowd behavior, too much indeed. The American crowd was vociferously patriotic; what else did anyone expect? A handful of overexcited idiots shouted at inappropriate moments—when a European player was addressing the ball; this is as wrong, as much against the etiquette of the game, as calling out when a tennis player is about to serve. A smaller handful of greater idiots directed loud and abusive insults to individual players, and some of them were properly ejected by stewards, in one case the miscreant being identified and reproved by Davis Love’s son. The Masters champion Danny Willett had it tough, but sadly, this was only to be expected after his brother had posted a ridiculous and unpleasant blog about American golf fans. He’s entitled to his opinion, however absurd, but he should have kept it to himself. Danny Willett has gallantly spoken up in defense of his brother, but undoubtedly suffered. He had a miserably disappointing Cup, but I wouldn’t put it all down to his treatment by a tiny section of the crowd. He has had a reaction to his Masters triumph and been in poor form most of the summer.


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