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After Valhalla, is golf still a gentleman's game? Should it be?

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,
Lee Westwood - 2008 Ryder Cup Matches
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Lee Westwood was the target of many American fans' jeers during the Ryder Cup Matches at Valhalla. (PGA of America)

With the steadily increasing media spotlight on the Ryder Cup Matches, will the once-dignified biennial matchup between U.S. and European golfers become just like other rowdy sporting events?

To those watching the Ryder Cup Matches at Valhalla last weekend, the action resembled either a rude and raucous Adam Sandler movie or a heart-rending melodrama in which the Greatest Country on Earth took back its rightful place in global golf.

Depends on which side of "the pond" you come from.

Golfers riding their drivers like crazed cowboys, golfers wind-milling their arms and whipping the crowd into a frenzy after bad shots by their opponents, golfers staring down their opponents like Darth Vader with a laser.

I haven't mentioned the fans yet, have I?

"I expected them to get behind the American team, which they did, but some people don't know the difference between supporting their team and abusing the opposition team, which is unfortunate," Lee Westwood said.

Like Colin Montgomerie before him, Westwood seemed to be the favorite European target of American fans desperate to win after the long losing streak by the U.S.

Maybe that's because he was the one European who seemed the most distracted by the taunts and insults.

There were the crude references to his mother, the incident where a fan jumped out in front of him dressed as a ghost and late-night phone calls to both him and his father before the Sunday singles matches.

Even if you were rooting for the American team, you had to feel for a defeated Westwood, who dejectedly lamented the fact that the "gentleman" has left the building as well as the game of golf.

True enough, the last gentleman in the Ryder Cup Matches might have been Jack Nicklaus, who conceded the putt to Tony Jacklin on the final hole in 1969 that enabled Europe to earn a tie.

Whose fault is this? Or is there even a finger to be pointed?

Emily Post might have said manners have almost disappeared completely from modern life, and so why not golf?

Ryder Cup officials have consistently worked to rid the event of heckling after incidents at Brookline Country Club in 1999, when Montgomerie and his wife caught hell from American fans.

Yet, it is these same officials who wink, nudge and encourage the increasingly intense media buildup before the Matches.

You can't have it both ways.

When the Ryder Cup was a relatively under-publicized affair, the players could afford to be gallant. Nobody really cared that much who won, certainly not the public.

But that was when the U.S. was dominant. When Europe started daring to whup up on the home boys, things started to heat up.

Now the Ryder Cup Matches have become the Super Bowl of golf, even more tension-fraught because it happens only every other year.

These guys are under a major media microscope. So when American Captain Paul Azinger tells U.S. fans at a pep rally it's okay to cheer after a European hits a bad shot, it makes big news.

That would have been unthinkable back in the days of Nicklaus and Jacklin.

I'm not sure this is necessarily a bad thing, at least if you favor the concept of golf getting increased attention from the public.

Who hasn't wondered how these guys would perform if they faced the sort of noise and distraction football, baseball and basketball players do?

More Sandler, less Nicklaus.

Why are golfers so exempt from the noisy, everyday world?

Then again, imagine Tiger Woods standing over a 10-foot putt at the Masters on Sunday with people screaming something about his mother.

Not such a pretty picture, is it?

The Ryder Cup Matches have become so big - mainly because of the media's voracious interest - that they may have forfeited golf's hallowed civility. This is what inevitably happens when a polite little event grows into a matter of national pride before a mass, almost worldwide sporting audience.

I'm betting that if you secretly polled Ryder Cup officials, they'd approve.

Believe me, it will only get worse. The 2010 Ryder Cup Matches are in Wales. You may have read European, particularly British, newspapers. They make our guys look like cupcakes.

So we may as well accept the sad fact that golf - Ryder Cup golf, in any case - has said fare thee well to the gentleman.

If you disagree, to hell with you.

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Paul Azinger - 2008 Ryder Cup CaptainJack Nicklaus - 1973 PGA Championship

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • rubbish

    Chris wrote on: Oct 3, 2008

    I am an English fan who was at Valhalla and couldn't disagree more.
    The vast majority of fans at the tournament both European and American behaved with huge respect for the golfers. Any incidents that did occur were very small and heavily frowned upon.
    It is interesting to note that Westwood semi-retracted his comments a week later.
    The only un-savoury incident during the whole week was Azinger at the pep rally where he incited the fans to cheer when the Europeans missed a putt - poor show by Azinger.
    Overall the Ryder Cup had a feel of a celebration of golf where the better team who played the better golf one (although that hurts me to say!)


  • Civility in golf

    chris haas wrote on: Sep 30, 2008

    This does not happen at the Masters because the people running the tournament do not allow it. The same could be true if PGA/USGA clamped down on the "yahoo" factor. Isn't it the par 3 16 at Phoenix that each year has the drunken crowd yelling at the players? The commentary in the main from the TV crew is one of benign approval. There was approval from Azinger concerning the conduct of Anthony Kim who to my mind should have been slapped down. Manners and civility should be taught by parents and endorsed in school but here again in both instances one has a considerable lack of restraint. Society in general reflects the mores of the times and the popularity of such garbage like world wrestling,ultimate fighting & rap "music" shows that mind set. There was a movie, whose title escapes me but one of the lines was "follow the money". That is why this type of behaviour is allowed in that it makes MONEY.


  • Gentlemen in Golf

    Tom B wrote on: Sep 30, 2008

    I love golf because it is a game where the professionals still self administer penalties. It is a game of integrity where skill in shot making is the determining factor, not whether the fans goad the opponent into missing a putt by waiving large noodles in distraction. The circus the NBA has become has made it unwatchable in my opinion. It is my hope that golf refrains from stooping to the lowest common denominator. I love watching good golf, regardless of where that golfer comes from.


  • Gentlemen in golf

    David Smith wrote on: Sep 30, 2008

    Sadly, this ship has sailed, and it is as much the fault of the custodians of the game as it is the spectators/media at a tournament like the ryder Cup.
    Golf used to be played by gentlemen (& ladies) in private clubs and players were taught golf etiquette by their pro and/or peers. Now golf is played by many people who have not had the opportunity to have that guidance, or simply reject it. The result - yelling on greens and tees even when close to others who are playing. Not raking sandtraps or replacing divots. Throwing clubs and taking 5 hours to play (which usually includes drinking lots of beer). It is no longer a gentlemans sport, lets hope it can be saved from becoming an outdoor version of WWF.


  • Gentlemen in golf

    Graham Taylor wrote on: Sep 30, 2008

    It would be lamentable if, as Lee Westwood believes, the sporting nature of golf (as a player or as a spectator) has gone. But I'm not sure it has. Nevertheless, it is at risk and we should do all we can to ensure that standards are maintained. I will be in Wales for Ryder Cup 2010 and for one will ensure that the US team is treated with respect - their good shots applauded and their bad shots greeted in respectful silence. The best team won at Valhalla - you play better and you win. That's the game. So well done USA and roll on 2010.