A Tale of Two Cup Matches


It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of sports heroes; it was the epoch of inequality. It was the top of golf; it was good competition given short shrift.
Apologies to Dickens, who was surely not thinking of golf when he cataloged the contradictions of late 18th century Europe in the opening of A Tale of Two Cities. But the great novelist would probably see such stark distinctions between professional golfs two greatest cup matches, played in the same year for the first time.
Its funny, in a way, that both the Ryder Cup and the Solheim Cup were the brainchildren of successful businessmen.
Samuel Ryder, an English seed merchant, also happened to be nuts about golf. He endowed a trophy for a set of international matches between pros from the United States and Great Britain at the suggestion of George Duncan, who was on the British team for an informal precursor of the Ryder Cup played before the 1926 Open Championship. The matches have been played in odd-numbered years ever since, except for 1939 through 1945, when World War II intervened, and last year, when the September 11 attacks caused the latest postponement.
The late Karsten Solheim revolutionized golf equipment with his perimeter-weighted putters and irons. He always had a special place in his heart for the womens game. He and his wife, Louise, dreamed of a worthy, international competition between the best women players from the United States and Europe. In 1990, they made it happen, and agreed to put up enough money to assure that there would be at least ten biennial matches. (It is likely that Ping, the company Solheim founded, will continue to have an interest in the Solheim Cup past that initial commitment.)
The Ryder Cup has become an immense pressure cooker, especially since the War by the Shore in 1991 at Kiawah Island, when it all came down to a missed putt by Bernhard Langer on the last hole. The focus has been on intense competition, on the new angles a team approach adds to an individual game, and on increased crowd involvement. But until recently, it never had to do with money, at least not where the grass grew.
That all changed before the 1999 event, when enterprising journalists brought to light the healthy profit the PGA of America makes from the event. Between television rights, merchandising, and other revenue streams, the PGA is said to make a net profit of at least $16 million from Ryder Cups played on U.S. soil, which bring in gross receipts of more than $60 million.
It was that, more than the greed of which they were unfairly accused, that made some U.S. Ryder Cup players insist that they be given some control over the proceeds their work helps to generate. For the 1999 event, a plan was set up that directed some of the money to charities of the players choosing.
Theres not much talk of money around the Solheim Cup, mainly because theres not much money to talk about. Solheim, who was more than well off by the time he and Mrs. Solheim endowed the competition, wasnt concerned about it.
Neither, it appears, was U.S. captain Patty Sheehan, who spoke at the opening ceremony about integrity, the rules of the game, etiquette, and fair play.
Womens golf has become so used to low pay that its not even discussed anymore.
To be fair, the Ryder Cup is not all about money. Under the veneer of modern sports commerce is the matured version of the spirited but friendly competition Samuel Ryder envisioned. But I wonder if it isnt time to find some way to elevate the Solheim Cup to Ryder Cup status.
Heres why: Consider the World Series. That seven-game compression of baseball drama is probably responsible for more childhood aspiration than a thousand regular season tilts. And even though the participants stand to gain a lot of dollars, no one ever talks about that.
Golfs professional cup competitions are the same way. After the PGA forestalled the 1999 money talk in time for the bad taste to wash out of peoples mouths, it was all about the golf. The Solheim Cup has always been like that. Both competitions attract avid golf fans (and in the case of the Ryder Cup, sports fans) because of the purity of competition among the best in the world.
Thats an echelon of player that rarely elevates flag above purse. After all, playing for money is their job. Seeing them play for glory is a rare treat in a world that sometimes seems to offer us only sitcoms and Styrofoam.
And why is that important?
When I watched the Solheim opening ceremony, and when I walked around Brookline at the 1999 Ryder Cup, I saw kids. Lots of kids.
And they had that World Series look in their eyes.