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Payback Time at the Belfry?

By John M. Ross,
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The so-called "Miracle at Brookline" in 1999 left many Europeans miffed - and then some. (.)

On the eve of the Ryder Cup matches, the chatter and speculation of golf fans is rather strange. Instead of focusing on whether the Yanks are strong enough to fend off an improved European team, the main questions center on the kind of retaliation the U.S. team might expect from the British galleries at The Belfry.

The last time the two sides met, in 1999, history was written in the so-called "Miracle at Brookline," when the Americans rallied from a 10-6 deficit in the Sunday matches to register a spectacular triumph. Almost as memorable for the Europeans, was the emotional eruption on the 17th green as the decisive point went into the cup. The U.S. team, their wives and gals, and hundreds of delirious galleryites swarmed over the green preventing the European player, Jose Maria Olazabel, from making his putt for about ten minutes.

It was a display seldom seen at a golf tournament, where proper courtesy and conduct prevail. Many were quick to chalk it up to the patriotic impact of the moment - an explosive display of Red, White and Blue elation. But the visitors and their followers didn't see it that way. They were miffed - and then some. Indeed, Mark James, the European team captain, would pen a book some months later, in which he blasted the American players and their fans for their behavior and poor sportsmanship.

Of course, there is nothing new about rooting and cheering for one's flag. We see it every four years when the Olympics are staged, and fans by the thousands bring along their flags and wave them at the right moment.

Indeed, on that very Brookline course, some 86 years earlier, a similar patriotic breakout occurred when Francis Ouimet, an unlikely American ex-caddie, won the 1913 U. S. Open Championship by beating Britain's two best players, Harry Vardon and Edward Ray, in a playoff. The Brits complained about the "rudeness" of the Yanks for the next 50 years or so.

Our fans don't differ very much from the spirited patriotic diehards in other lands. Americans who have played on U. S. Ryder Cup teams over the years tell of being razzed and teased by galleries in foreign ports in recent years. Often it didn't bother them, mostly because it was in a different language!

When the Ryder Cup matches simply pitted the U.S. against a team from Great Britain or Ireland, the gallery usually was quite silent and courteous. As a matter of fact, there wasn't much of an audience at all in those days. It was more like a social event and we always won. I remember driving out to the Cup matches in 1975 at the Laurel Valley Club, near Pittsburgh, with Hall of Famer Fred Corcoran, the premier golf promoter at the time. Settling down near the first tee, Fred scanned the scene and cracked: "Looks like the players and officials will outnumber the customers by 2 to 1."

It wasn't until 1979, when the format changed and European players joined the team, and the matches became more competitive, that the Cup began to draw some crowds. Today, of course, it ranks among the top international sporting events and one of the most hotly contested.

The two squads that square off for the Sept. 28-30 showdown are, essentially, the fellows who occupy the upper rungs of the world rankings, and it promises to be another sizzler. Let's hope our boys remember to bring some ear plugs with them, just in case the Brit fans decide to pay them back for the doings at Brookline.

Among other things, I think Phil Mickelson is one of those unlucky people. Think of his lip-outs and near misses at critical times in the past few months. The bounces that never seem to jump his way but into the taller cut. That long approach shot at the PGA Championship that landed squarely in the cup only to bounce out on a high arc and finally leave him with a 30-foot putt, and so on.

Here's another one for his sad compilation. He was sitting in the clubhouse with his tour chums, watching TV, as Tiger Woods went at it with Jim Furyk in that gripping seven-hole playoff in the WGC-NEC Invitational at Firestone. With Furyk in the bunker on his third shot of the first playoff hole, Phil offered to bet anyone that Jim would hold out. But he wanted odds of 25-1. Reasonable enough.

The group around the table didn't stir, until Mile Weir broke the silence and covered Phil's $20 bill.

When Furyk's blast went into the cup, Phil was a $500 winner. Lucky Phil! Not really.

Somehow word got back to Commissioner Tim Finchem of Mickelson's magical touch, and then word got to Mickelson that he and Weir were to appear in the Commissioner's office to explain why they had violated the PGA Tour's strict rule against players gambling on golf tournaments. Chances are his fine will not only wipe out his $500 hit, but take a few dollars of his own cash.

As I was saying, Phil Mickelson is plain unlucky. Even when he's lucky.

There must be some way we can persuade the TV networks to leave the scoreboard on the screen long enough for viewers to digest what it is showing. It is understandable that they're anxious to get the next commercial on, but why go to all the trouble of keeping the boards up to the minute on scores if this isn't properly shared with the viewers.

If network officials think scoreboards are just incidental - an ornamental prop of sorts - they're dead wrong. At any tournament one can see hundreds and hundreds of patrons gathered in front of the board at all times, catching up with what's happening over the vast expanse of the course. Some study it to see which hole is playing tough or if the big hitters are making hay on the par-5s. And that's part of the fun of watching golf.

It's time we got a chance to enjoy them on the screen, too. Give us the time to read them!

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