War and Sports at Ryder Cup

NEWPORT, Wales -- The question brought a laugh. And some serious thought. Could Phil Mickelson, in response to the United States Ryder Cup team being addressed by an F-16 fighter pilot, who happens also to be a golf pro, "explain America's apparent fondness for associating sport with war?''

Mickelson, more concerned about his driving, said only, "I haven't noticed that to be the case, but I do feel proud to be part of a country that cares about the civil rights of people throughout the world and not just in our country.''

And like that, an international golfing competition had become an international incident. With particularly the Brits, apparently forgetting the Falkland Islands battle, finding reason to declare America a violent, nasty nation.

Sports and war, indeed, have been inseparable. Metaphorically. It's individual against individual. Or team against team. Or country against country.

It's conflict. It's, well, war, in a matter of speaking.

So much of the linking golf to war came from the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, along the coast of South Carolina. The military operation called Desert Storm was underway in the Mideast. To give support to U.S. troops and to give a bit of zest to the competition, the matches were nicknamed "The War on the Shore,'' and the American team wore fatigue caps.

The Euros took it the wrong way. Or maybe they took it the right way. They also took it on the chin, the U.S. halting a three-match non-winning streak.

Nineteen years later, memories linger, for both sides, especially since Corey Pavin, who in '91 was a player for America is now the captain for America.

It's difficult to understand the idea of jazzing up golfers. Football you want the adrenaline flowing, athletes ready to smack someone. But in golf, the only things the players are going to is smack is a small ball, and that demands concentration and a feeling of calm.

You want to be jumpy and on edge in football. You want to be relaxed in golf.

However, Ryder Cup captains forever are seeking ways to motivate their teams, when really someone rolling in a 20-foot birdie putt is all that matters, and that can't be inspired, only accomplished.

"America called in the military,'' wrote Mark Reason in the London Telegraph. "Europe called in Seve Ballesteros.''

Seve, of course, was the leader of the European squads in the 1980s and then chosen captain for 1997. Now, having undergone surgery for brain cancer, Ballesteros is restricted to his home in Spain. Current European captain Colin Montgomerie had him address the team on speakerphone and also revived Seve's speech of 1997.

"The only motivation this team needed,'' contended Montgomerie, asked why he called Ballesteros, "was to lose the Ryder Cup two years ago. I was after passion.''

The U.S. won the Ryder Cup two years ago, at Valhalla near Louisville, thousands of fans chanting "USA, USA.'' But Pavin wanted the current group, especially the rookies, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, to pay attention to the present.

For that purpose he brought in Maj. Dan Rooney of the USAF and PGA of America, who created something called "Patriot Day,'' to raise money through golf for children and widows of servicemen disabled or killed.

"It wasn't so much a motivational speech, per se,'' said Pavin, echoing Montgomerie's words. "But maybe more a little awareness of what's happening around the world, and what's going on and - in a military sense - how team unity and accountability to each other is very important.''

But to the British media, the dominant journalistic force at Celtic Manor, as one might expect at a venue only 120 miles from London, it was very unacceptable. As evident from the questions about Major Rooney.

"Bearing in mind the severe criticism that you got for your choice of head gear at Kiawah Island,'' Pavin was asked, "would it perhaps not been wiser to distance yourself from military connotations during this captaincy?''

Pavin was quietly adamant. "No, I don't think so,'' he said. "I think the military awareness in the United States is probably at an all-time high. And people, certainly in the states, and over here, appreciate the military and what they do for our freedoms.''

In the United States. Not over here.

"Two continents divided by a common war,'' wrote Reason in the Telegraph. "The Americans stand with their hand on their heart when their anthem plays. The Euros mumble words through a stiff upper lip ... When he heard that Pavin called in the Air Force, Montgomerie emitted a high-pitched ‘Oh,' that translated, ‘How over the top.' ‘'

Golf long has been played with white balls. Now it seems to need white flags.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

Author Archive