This week is a big deal. As if last week’s Tour Championship and FedExCup weren’t enough for our hearts, now comes the biennial, delightfully nationalistic Ryder Cup. It begins Friday with the European Team hosting the United States Team and always presents great opportunities for the study of the principles of mastery. But you’ve got to be able to keep your eyes open if you want to watch it live; the matches begin in the middle of the night here in the United States. The Pregame Show begins at 2:30 AM (Eastern) on ESPN. Thank God for DVRs.
The event will be played at Celtic Manor Golf Club in Newport, Wales. I always think of Wales as being somewhere northwest of London—and much of it is—but Newport is approximately 125 miles straight west. And, as was the case last Sunday at the Tour Championship, rain is predicted for much of the week (Oh, no! Raingear again!).
For those new to the Ryder Cup matches, they date back to 1927 and consist of two, 12-man teams from the United States and Europe. The 3-day matches alternate being played in the U.S. and Europe and, with the advent of high quality television coverage, have become a very big deal.
Why? Because what once was a gentlemen’s display of international golf sportsmanship, until recent years when clearer heads began to prevail again, had devolved into a death match for God and Country. Well, perhaps not death and not God, but certainly Country and Team. And though it’s considerably tamed down, these lofty purposes and the competitiveness they engender are still where the chemistry of the event becomes positively delicious.
The matches are played in three, match-play formats: Fourballs, Foursomes and Singles; but the formats are not as interesting as the dynamics.
Eight of the players from each team are formed into two-man teams on Friday and Saturday, four teams each morning and afternoon. So the first dynamic becomes, “I don’t want to let my partner down.” The second dynamic is, “I don’t want to let my country down.” (Did I mention that everybody plays in team uniforms? They don’t always feature red, white and blue or Europe’s blue and gold, but they leave no doubt who and what you’re playing for.) And the third dynamic is, “Who gets to play?” Four players from each team sit out each morning and afternoon, assuming the mantle of cheerleaders. Not unimportant, but not as noble and rewarding either. Or affirming. Everyone plays in the singles matches on Sunday.
Here, for example, is the most delicious conundrum. Tiger Woods is still ranked the number one player in the world in spite of his notorious recent swing problems stemming from trying to rebuild his swing for his post-divorce comeback. He has shown flashes of brilliance and disaster. He has always played in all five matches (each morning and afternoon and the singles) because he was always the best player. But this year, he fell out of the points standings that would have made him an automatic qualifier, he’s not playing to his normal standards, and Corey Pavin had to select him as a Captain’s pick. If Tiger is still a little wobbly, does Pavin play Tiger or sit him?
In fourballs (best ball), where each player plays their own ball to post the lowest score for the team, if Tiger is hitting it into the tree line, that can put a lot of pressure on his partner to keep his ball in play. That can really cramp his freedom. But since this is the morning format each day, that might be the safest strategy for Tiger to get his sea legs so that he can play in all five matches.
In foursomes (alternate shot), where each player alternates hitting the same ball with his partner, if Tiger is hitting it off the planet, they may need to send a search party at the end of the day to find them. And in either case, while it only costs the team one point for the match, it costs Tiger, or any other player much more: loss of trust. While the points do add up and you hate to lose even one, it’s the unspoken loss of trust that’s the killer of team unity and rapport. Nobody wants to be the skunk in the team room.
Tiger will surely would be gracious in support of his teammates if Pavin decides to sit him, but will his cheering be a little too ardent to mask his embarrassment? Or will the greatest player who has always had the purest sense of himself still be able to remain centered in his certainty?
All of these things provide a rich weave of ego-clutter. When everything is going well, everybody is high-fiving each other. But when things take a turn, each player has to fight like crazy to keep his partner and himself in the match. It can add a level of tension, tightening the spiral. And when it’s clear to them that a loss will ensue, a suspension bridge couldn’t hold their heads up and shoulders back.
In earlier years when these things weren’t understood as well, when things started going south, teammates would apologize to each other, “Sorry, partner.” It was at once a sincere apology to someone you felt you’d let down and, on the other, an expression of intense embarrassment generated by the ego.
In recent years, much of the self-centered ego concerns have been better managed by the players, especially by the players experienced in Ryder Cup play. “You win some, you lose some and I’m doing my best to win them all. And I assume you are too.” But you sometimes still see it in their faces and furtive glances.
As long as everybody knows that everybody else is doing their absolute best, nobody expects you to apologize. Apologies in these circumstances are a sign of weakness: “You think so little of yourself that you think I need an apology? You think I don’t know that you want the best for us too?” So swallow your pride, bite your tongue and continue playing hard. Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
And besides, it’s generally not just you making mistakes anyway.