Sport is often bonkers, but rarely as bonkers as Ryder Cup week
The biennial ‘made for television’ jamboree that is the Ryder Cup will monopolise airtime and column inches in the days ahead. And what is not to like? A group of 24 highly paid professional golfers who play for themselves, and themselves only, week in week out, are thrust together into a team competition every two years. Some prosper and embrace the experience, others less so. And Ireland has a long and proud history in the event, providing winning puts (Eamon Darcy, Muirfield Village 1987), memorable shots (Christy O’Connor’s two iron on the last at the Belfry in 1989), and some moments best forgotten (the pint drinking spectacle at the K Club in 2006). Even for nongolfing fans like myself, it really makes great television. An event that it is probably best observed from the couch rather than the course, as the living room provides action from all the matches ongoing, whilst, I’d imagine, the on-course experience is more limited.
The competition itself dates from 1927 when Great Britain took on the United States, Then in 1973, they changed the name from Great Britain to Great Britain and Ireland to reflect the fact that Irish golfers had been competing since 1953 (Northern Irish golfers since 1947). That was nice of them! And then, presumably for television purposes, or perhaps because Seve Ballesteros was the best golfer in the world at the time, or perhaps because GB&I couldn’t win the thing, it morphed into Europe against the United States in 1979. Interestingly the amateur equivalent (the Walker Cup) continues to exist as GB&I versus the USA.Since the Ryder Cup Church broadened its membership out to continental Europe in 1979, a great team ethic has always existed in the European Camp. And that is what makes this iteration of the Ryder Cup so interesting.
Sky Sports have the broadcast rights and will fill gaps in its schedule throughout the week by telling us what this means for ‘Team Europe’. Expect plenty of European flags on screen. Sky even had the audacity to run an advert campaign for the Ryder Cup with the tag line ‘Believe in Blue’ referencing the predominant colour of the flag of the European Union. I use the word audacity because this is the same Sky Corporation, owned by the Murdock family, that campaigned so hard for Britain’s exit from the European Union. According to its website, the European flag symbolises both the European Union and, more broadly, the identity and unity of Europe. It features a circle of 12 gold stars on a blue background. The stars stand for the ideals of unity, solidarity and harmony among the peoples of Europe. Lovely!
France hosted last the Ryder Cup in 2018 and the sight of English golf fans, bedecked in the yellow and blue of Europe, singing, screaming and roaring for a European team that represented a community that over half of their population had recently voted to run away from was about as incongruous a sporting spectacle that you are likely to see. The irony seems lost on them, but surely not the rest of us. Parallels between the Ryder Cup and Eurovision used to be tenuous. Less so now.
But Shane Lowry will add colour, Padraig Harrington will have them well prepared and we will tune in and wish the Boys in Blue well. Ireland’s proud history at the Ryder Cup is in part due to the way that golfers develop in this part of the golfing world. Team competition is part and parcel of what we do. Foursomes and fourballs are taught from a young age. Matchplay is what we do best. The more insular nature of US golf focuses on the individual rather than the team.
The Collegiate system plays into this and aspiring golfers over there must perform as individuals to secure scholarships, sponsorships and tour cards. And team sports are part of the Irish and to a lesser extent European psych too. Witness Shane Lowry attending the All Ireland winning campaign of the Offaly under 20 footballers. Last Saturday, he cut his press conference at the PGA Championship in Wentworth short because he wanted to watch the All Ireland Senior football final, leaving the conference room saying ‘Mayo for Sam’ as bemused golf journalists looked on. If Harrington wants a tip from me, put Lowry and Sergio together for the fourballs and watch the Americans wilt. You can have that one for free Padraig.
And to further emphasis my point about how Irish golfers understand team golf better than others, one only has to look at Leona Maguire. She became the first Irish golfer to play in the professional women’s equivalent of the Ryder Cup, namely the Solheim Cup. And she started to break records almost instantly. She won four and a half points out of a possible five. She was the only player from either the European team or the US team to play in all five sessions of the event. She became only the third player in the history of the event to win more than four points for her team and the only one to do it on her debut in the event.
The secret that we have known for many years in Ireland is out. The whole world now knows that the Cavan lady is a global superstar. The RTE Sportsperson of the Year is already populated by some outstanding female contenders, but Maguire will take beating.In her singles match on the final day, she beat her opponent Jennifer Kupcho. The American golfer was previously unbeaten in the event, but then again, she had not played against the Irish golfer prior to that. Maguire won 5 and 4, which translates as a trouncing if golf match-play isn’t your thing. She beat Nelly Korda, the world’s highest ranked female golfer. The Americans could have put whomever they liked out against Maguire and she would not be beaten. Not that week and not on that course and not representing her team.
It was a perfect week for her and the poise and maturity of her off course persona is a credit to her. She is a superb role model for any aspiring sports person, irrespective of gender. I watched the Ladies US tennis Open final recently not least because of the unique pairing involved. Emma Raducanu (18 years old) from London defeated Canadian Leylah Fernandez (19 years old) in straight sets. Another superstar is born. And what a sports story this was. Raducanu was only playing in her second grand slam event.
The first was this summer’s Wimbledon and that had not gone too well for the young player. She was forced to retire in her last 16 match against Australian Ajla Tomljanovic on medical grounds. She later explained that the whole experiencehad caught up with her. Cue some hostile commentary in the British press including this from a man who should know better ‘she couldn’t handle the pressure and quit when losing badly, not brave, just a shame. Is there anything more tone deaf right now that middle aged men discussing the mental health of young female tennis players? Did the Naomi Osaka absence from Wimbledon escape them? There is an old adage in sport that the best way of answering your critics is to do it on the pitch (court). Which is what Raducanu did. She went through the qualifiers, and gained entry to the main draw. Whereupon she only went and won the thing without even dropping a single set.
Not to take anything away from this brilliant performance but the stars did align a little for her. Her path to the final was devoid of the worlds best players. The top seeds had been beaten elsewhere and Raducanu accounted for their conquerors rather than meeting the likes of Ashley Barty. Her toughest opponent in the competition was Mariam Bolkvadze who isn’t ranked in the world’s top 100 players. But Raducanu created history. No other player, in either men’s or women’s tennis has ever won a grand slam having gone through the qualifiers. She picked up a cheque for $2.5 million and also picked up the expectation of an the British public and equally expectant British media.
What a difference a few months make in the court of British press opinion? To my knowledge no Irish journalist had ever questioned Leona Maguire’s mental resolve? Or even questioned her talent or her capacity to be a winner. And Maguire is 26. Raducanu had to face all of that before her 19th birthday. Both young women announced themselves on a world stage on the same weekend but both are likely to be judged differently as their careers unfold. And that is not fair. Not fair on Raducanu. Not fair on Naomi Osaka (aged 23 years). Women in sport deserve to be judged as fairly as their male counterparts. Not harsher.And finally, disgraceful is the only term to describe the treatment of the Connaught women’s interprovincial rugby team last weekend in Donnybrook. Firstly, Covid restrictions meant that changing rooms could not be used. Mother of God!
Then, they were directed to a derelict area of the ground, complete with refuse bins and evidence of rodent infestation, in order to change and prepare for a game against Ulster. It goes without saying that their male counterparts would never be expected to endure such harsh conditions but I would go further and say that a schoolboy rugby team would not have to endure such conditions.We have a long way to go before we offer parity of esteem to women and girls who play sports. Parity in how they are both judged and treated.
As I said earlier, sport is often bonkers, but not necessarily in a fun way.
Join Ronan Quirke each and every Monday night at 7pm for Extra Time on TippFM