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It’s not cricket

Just over an hour ago, the first matches in the Ryder Cup 2014 tee-ed off at Gleneagles.

Will I be there? No.

If someone called me in the next half hour and offered me the top hospitality package for Sunday’s singles, would I accept? No.

Somewhere along the line, I fell out of love with golf’s biennial transatlantic duel. Yes, the ‘Miracle at Medinah’ was compelling viewing, and the outcome was deeply satisfying. And yet there was something about it that I didn’t like, the triumphalism, the sometimes mindless behaviour of the crowds, the sometimes mindless behaviour of Bubba Watson encouraging the crowd to break one of the cardinal rules of golf etiquette by roaring him on as he hit his first tee shot. (He was not alone, as I recall; Ian Poulter saw fit to copy him. A friend of mine used to have a seat near Poults at the Emirates Stadium, so this did not surprise me.)

In 1973, the event was played at Muirfield. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Billy Casper led the American team: it was too far back for Tom Watson. In those pre-Seve days Europe was not invited; the side was Great Britain and Ireland and the result was almost inevitable.The crowds were smaller too, with far fewer American visitors for what was expected to be a walk-over, even with Tony Jacklin, Peter Oosterhuis, Neil Coles and a 48-year-old Christy O’Connor in the GB&I team.

In fact, they did better than expected, going into the final round of singles with a mathematical chance of victory, only to see the score-board turn red. There were two singles rounds in those days, eight matches each; under those rules it was possible to be selected for the Ryder Cup but never play a match. One English golfer was in the 1971 and 1973 teams yet played only once, in a four-ball. Brian Barnes, on the other hand, made his name by beating Jack Nicklaus twice in one day.

Television coverage was provided by the BBC. The admission charges were modest crowds, with the exception of  one yob who had a down on Bernard Gallagher for some reason, were well-behaved. It was a dignified, enjoyable event, even in the preparation days, when Lee Trevino could be found doing his stand-up turn on the practice ground.

Forty-one years later, I doubt that Muirfield would welcome the event. It has been transformed into a circus with crowds paying through the nose, per day, to behaving like wrestling fans. Television coverage today is provided by Sky Television, led by the terminally platitudinous Ewen Murray. Sky being a jewel in the crown of the odious Murdoch Empire, all of his titles join in the hype, leaving the rest of the media no choice but to add its voice.

All this has been reflected in the attitude of the players. Nicklaus famously gave Tony Jacklin a putt for a half that resulted in a tied match. At the height of the notorious Battle of Brookline, Payne Stewart conceded his match to Colin Montgomerie to signal his disapproval of the crowd’s behaviour. That match may have been a nadir, but things have improved only superficially since then. Today the US has Keegan Bradley, and we have Poulter. Good examples to junior golfers? I think not.

Progress is progress, I suppose, but I can’t help but observe that the growth in interest in the Ryder Cup can be traced back to the years when the Americans, for the first time in the history of the event, started to lose more  than they won. They reacted and our crowds have followed suit, until the spectacle is unedifying however the contest turns out.

The whole thing runs counter to the spirit of the game of golf.

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