Sporting Life

Ryder Cup's thrill lies in stars playing for each other

Today men will shake and throw up beside manicured lawns and fear they might miss a ball they could otherwise hit in their sleep. Today captains will watch them and find their hair turn as grey as their mood, for once Jose Maria Olazabal said "in a way it's torture".

Today starts a contest for a trophy which is 17 inches (43.2cm) tall and nine inches wide and 89 years old, whose winning really doesn't matter on a player's CV. You know Jack Nicklaus won 18 Majors but do you know his Cup record?

Today is when professionals temporarily become like us. They play for nothing. If the conversation of modern sport revolves around rankings, points, transfer fees, manager salaries, US$10 million (S$13.6 million) bonus for the FedExCup, then this Cup is meaningful because all that is meaningless.

Today we don't care whether the US team together earned US$50,959,525 on their PGA Tour this year. Because this is a contest whose real prize is something so elemental that every kid who has ever played sport has tasted it. Bragging rights. With a two-year expiry date.

Today accomplished athletes will get unusually nervous because they will be confronted by an unfamiliar sporting idea: unselfishness. To be great in an individual sport is to live in a cocoon and design a life that's focused on you. Everyone in the athlete's household wakes up when he has to. But to be great in the Ryder Cup is to play for, and with, someone else. It's why we watch, attracted by the notion of a cause bigger than men themselves.

Today accomplished athletes will get unusually nervous because they will be confronted by an unfamiliar sporting idea: unselfishness. To be great in an individual sport is to live in a cocoon and design a life that's focused on you. But to be great in the Ryder Cup is to play for, and with, someone else.

It's easier to play for money than for another man because it's when your failure affects someone else that it has a different weight. A missed putt next week might mean you only let yourself down; an errant putt this week means you let down your partner, team, captain, country, continent. In a game so psychologically trying anyway, this can be devastating which makes it delicious.

Today we reopen the biennial debate about the role of the captain. He's the top guy and the fall guy. He won't hit a shot but critics will think he should be when he gets a pairing wrong. Young men who play for a living will fall apart, but the captain will be blamed for lacking the inspirational superglue. Hal Sutton put two exceptional players, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, together and 12 years after they lost Mickelson is still whining about it.

No jigsaw is harder to assemble than the sporting team, a marrying of talents and egos in common cause. Football teams spend lifetimes trying to find the right alchemy, but Ryder Cup teams must discover it in a week.

And so captains will call in F-16 pilots, basketball stars and swimmers to preach patriotism and stitch a team together. But sometimes this feels like an exaggerated attempt at an artificial brotherhood. Rory McIlroy picked on this perfectly when he said: "I think sometimes you can 'over-team' it a little bit and try too hard instead of it just happening naturally."

Today is sport cleverly turned upside down. Europe have won the last three Cups and have triumphed in eight of the last 10 and yet in a Houdini-ish feat they still emerge as the underdog. Partly it is the numbers for Europe have a combined world ranking of 333 compared to America's 196. Yet partly it is the Americans' discomfort with the role of the underdog.

Superpowers don't sit back, they set the standard, they lead, they don't expect to lose. It's just not in their sporting DNA. To quote a fellow who couldn't spell underdog named General George S. Patton: "Americans play to win all the time." Ah, you might cheer for Europe but it's hard not to smile at an American confidence?

Today stars will fade and rookies will shine and heartbreak will come and nationalism will rise. Today sport will try and remember what it usually forgets, which is to walk a line between competitiveness and classiness. Said Nicklaus, a man of fine generosity: "I wish we wouldn't make such a war out of it."

Last week, he tweeted a picture of him and Tony Jacklin shaking hands under the caption: "47 years ago today #TheConcession". He was referring to 1969, when Englishman Jacklin had an almost three-foot putt on the final hole. If he made it, Britain would draw with America for the first time. If he missed, America would win the Cup outright.

Except when Nicklaus sank his own putt, he picked up Jacklin's marker and conceded his rival's short putt with the words: "I was sure you would hole that putt, but I was not prepared to see you miss."

Not every American was pleased with Nicklaus but he understood that this Cup must join people in a love for golf more than it separates. The best legacy for this collision of continents isn't just skill under tension but decency under pressure. It was an important lesson for sport then, as it is, of course, today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2016, with the headline 'Cup's thrill lies in stars playing for each other'. Print Edition | Subscribe