Step On Their NecksPolitely


04 Ryder CupIn the 1993 movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, Ben Kingsley plays Bruce Pandolfini, a chess master who is trying to polish the game of child prodigy Josh Waitzkin, played my Max Pomeranc. One exchange struck me:
Bruce: Do you know what it means to have 'contempt' for your opponent?
Josh: No.
Bruce: It means to hate them. You have to hate them, Josh. They hate you.
Josh: But I don't hate them.
Bruce: Well, you'd better start.
Nonsense, I thought. The real accomplishment is to be able to beat someone you like, someone you have gone out of your way to be courteous to. Ask Bobby Jones.
Many practitioners of match play say that you indeed have to hate your opponent to get the job done. I wonder sometimes if they mean it. This years Ryder Cup run-up wasnt exactly a love fest, but there were plenty of expressions of mutual admiration. These guys play together in the biggest tournaments, and I dont see a lot of death looks across the practice tee.
Others have suggested that all this friendliness is a sign of weakness, or at least softness, and that it dilutes the will to win. They prefer to see the spirit Tiger Woods showed some years ago when he fixed a reporter with a menacing stare and intoned that the best thing to do when you have a big lead over an opponent is to step on his neck.
All of which brings up the question: Do you have to hate your opponent to win the Ryder Cup? Or is it better if you dont?
I suspect that half the people who say yes to match-play hate mean it figuratively. That is, once the handshakes and good-lucks on the first tee are over, quiet disdain rules until the final putt drops.
Its an ancient theme in the ancient game. When last in St. Andrews, I dropped into a bookshop that had a selection of hand-colored cartoons from old English humor magazines, mostly Punch. One depicted two old Scots, Macphail and Macpherson, about to tee off on the eighteenth hole of their match, during which they had been completely silent. Macphail breaks the spell to say to Macpherson, Dor-rr-rr-mie! and the other answers, Chatter-rr-rr-box! (Of course, the cartoon now hangs on the wall of my home office.)
This is defensible, to be sure. Its nothing more than game face, and as long as it doesnt spill over into glove-Velcro snapping on putts and that kind of junk, its fine. It even ramps up the excitement and gets guys into an almost freaky corner of The Zone, like Corey Pavin when he chipped in during morning foursomes in the 1995 Ryder Cup. He was a golf robot. A robot with really good touch. I doubt he and Tom Lehman hated Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie. But they had certainly tuned them out effectively.
I dont see any evidence of real contempt at this Ryder Cup. (Well, Monty has contempt for the reporters who insist on asking about his divorce, but thats another story.) But whenever I run into really antagonistic match players, I feel sorry for them. I dont even care if I lose to them; after all, Im there to try as hard as I can to win, but mostly to have fun, win or lose. When Im playing someone with a similar attitude, I feel good after the match, as long as I tried my best. Match play is such an anything-can-happen format that theres no point in getting all worked up.
Of course, playing for your country is a different matter, especially in terms of pressure. Likely Ryder Cuppers put more pressure on themselves than anyone else does. Thats the kind of people they are. But that doesnt change the fact that competition is more satisfying when you can be a gentleman (or lady) to your opponent and still kick the all-fired, gloppy, hot-in-the-Georgia-summer-sun tar out of him (or her).
This is the paragraph where I tend to veer into preachiness, but Ill restrain myself. Suffice to say, handling international competitions in this way speaks well of golf, and of sports in general. I wouldnt be surprised if a lot of parents who were thinking of introducing their kids to golf do so after a good Ryder Cup.
Which is what were hoping for, right?
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