CHASKA, Minn. – If the Ryder Cup were a publicly traded holding on the New York Stock Exchange, the price would have rocketed through the roof with the opening of today’s markets.
The Ryder Cup is busting out of golf’s niche with a snarling, pugnacious face.
It’s a beautiful and ugly thing all at the same time.
The Masters may still be bigger in name, but the Ryder Cup holds more potential to popularize the game beyond its limited habitat in the larger sports world.
The Ryder Cup is an international team event with nationalistic passions driving interest, with American and European pride pitted against each other on a grand stage. The intensity of the rivalry gives its appeal more breadth and scope than anything else in golf, more even than the Olympics, where the game’s profile is raised but still overshadowed by other Olympic sports.
The growth of the Ryder Cup has to be a thrilling deal for the PGA of America, which shares rights to the biennial international team event with Ryder Cup Europe. It also has to be daunting for the PGA, given its responsibility to protect the spirit of the game as it uses the Ryder Cup to grow the game.
Questions abound in the aftermath of Hazeltine.
How do you use the Ryder Cup to grow the game without selling its soul and the principles Samuel Ryder based the event upon? How do you prevent the Ryder Cup from looking too much like a larger version of the 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open?
The combative nature of this Ryder Cup, with Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed howling, fist pumping and strutting around Hazeltine in their intense match Sunday, was thrilling and fun and also a troubling tightrope walk for the greater game. It made Ryder Cup golf more like other sports than golf ever gets. It was, at times, as rowdy as a football or soccer game.
After holing his 50-foot putt for birdie at the eighth hole Sunday, McIlroy showed just how the emotionally super-charged nature of the matches can transform its participants. The normally even-tempered McIlroy roared fiercely, put a hand to his ear, hopped toward the grandstand and screamed “I can’t hear you!” He threw his first celebratory punch at a grandstand at the end of Friday’s play and continued to aim uppercuts and roundhouses at fans the rest of the way.
The PGA of America cautioned fans before Sunday singles that unruly behavior wouldn’t be tolerated, but you wondered about McIlroy himself. Wasn’t he taunting the American crowd? This isn’t an indictment of McIlroy. With all the abuse hurled at him over two days, who could blame him? He was more than justified wanting to show “we aren’t going down without a fight.” Yes, this may have been a vocal minority of Americans on the attack, but they were an obnoxious, relentless and very loud minority. The ’99 matches at Brookline may have been worse for Colin Montgomerie, but this was worse for the entirety of the European team.
Society’s becoming less civil overall. We see that in social media, and it was as if the social media mob found bodies to inhabit at Hazeltine, where most of the crude insults were hurled from deep in a crowd, where you could rarely put a face to the voice.
Golf’s different, and that’s the challenge for the PGA of America and Ryder Cup Europe.
Golf prides itself on being different, on being the “ancient game,” a gentleman’s game where you call penalties on yourself and adhere to a strict code of conduct. This isn’t to say professional golfers are better people than athletes from other sports. It’s the game that’s different, the traditions and the standards it demands its players uphold.
Today, it’s not hard to imagine junior golfers imitating their role models at public munis, strutting like a rooster, the way Patrick Reed did after holing big putts. It’s not hard to imagine youth golfers waving a finger back and forth at an opponent, the way Reed did to McIlroy after dropping a birdie on top of McIlroy’s bomb at the eighth hole. It’s not hard to imagine junior golfers putting hands to their ears after great shots the way McIlroy did.
It’s also not that hard to imagine celebratory reactions on the PGA Tour going beyond hard fist pumps in the not too distant future.
Without a doubt, this Ryder Cup was compelling in part because of the intensity of the emotions, but this Ryder Cup also put golf closer to the ledge that separates the game’s sensibilities from other sports.
There’s an opportunity for golf in this, but there’s a danger, too.
That’s the beautiful and ugly thing the PGA of America and Ryder Cup Europe must corral.
The Ryder Cup is a great opportunity to sell golf as a larger sport outside its niche, to grow and popularize the game, but the Ryder Cup takes golf closer to the muck that challenges the more popular sports. There’s a danger in tolerating more than other major golf events tolerate, in lowering golf’s standards for behavior.
That’s the challenge for the PGA of America and Ryder Cup Europe, to build on this Ryder Cup’s momentum, to touch larger audiences with one of golf’s great assets, the honor and civility that separates the game.
What’s the answer?
Educating new fans, for sure, though there’s no educating the most boorish among us.
Policing incidents better, though the best policing this week came when American players and assistant captains aggressively stepped in to tone down fans. Jordan Spieth intervened numerous times, Bubba Watson, too. The best policing of all came when American fans booed down and turned against one of their own at the 16th Sunday, after McIlroy had to step off a shot with a fan heckling.
Yes, the PGA could ban alcohol sales, but even McIlroy didn’t want to see an obnoxious minority dictate that change.
As long as the Ryder Cup excites passions, there will be the danger those passions overwhelm the game’s honorable traditions. It’s a tightrope the PGA and Ryder Cup Europe must navigate taking the game to a bigger place, if not necessarily a better place.