ORLANDO, FL --- There are some pairings that just seem to be a natural fit: Bogie and Bacall, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Batman and Robin, Captain Kirk and Spock, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.
Take one away from the other, though, and the magic fades (although Jordan and Ruth did pretty well with just about anybody).
You can add the Ryder Cup and its fans to that list. Yet, the PGA of America is thinking about breaking them up – at least temporarily.
Because of COVID-19 and the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for limiting the size of gatherings during the pandemic, PGA of America CEO Sam Waugh says the possibility of staging the 2020 Ryder Cup without fans in attendance is being considered. The biennial match between Team USA and Team Europe, a joint venture of the PGA and Ryder Cup Europe, currently is scheduled for Sept. 25-27 at Whistling Straits Golf Course in Kohler, WI.
The desire of all parties is to play the Cup as scheduled, in front of hundreds of thousands of fans (the 200,000 tickets for the weekend matches reportedly sold out less than one hour after being made available online). But, that all depends on how successful efforts have been to contain the spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus.
“Augusta without fans would be strange,” Waugh told golf.com writer Michael Bamberger. “A Ryder Cup without fans would be even more strange.
“That’s one of our big decisions: is the Ryder Cup the Ryder Cup if you have it without fans. If you don’t have fans, the question becomes ‘Is it a true Ryder Cup or not?’”
The answer is no. A Ryder Cup without fans is Tom Brady without Bill Belichick, Abbott minus Costello, Roger Maris without Mickey Mantle, A-Rod sans Derek Jeter, or the Sundance Kid without Butch Cassidy.
Golf has not escaped the virus that has turned the sports world – in fact, the entire world – upside down. Other top golf events have been postponed: the PGA Championship moved to August, the U.S. Open to September, the Masters to November, and the British Open canceled altogether. Plus, the PGA Tour has announced that the first four tournaments in the Tour’s re-opening will be played without fans, beginning with the Charles Schwab Challenge June 11 in Fort Worth, Texas. The Ryder Cup could be next.
An Event Beyond Golf
The Cup, though, is anything but a typical Tour event. The Ryder Cup is part football game, part golf match, and part patriotic rally. Its atmosphere is unrivaled in golf – or any sports event, except perhaps the Olympics or World Cup soccer.
“You don’t just get golf fans watching the Ryder Cup, you get actual sports fans and it captures everybody’s imagination,” Team Europe’s Lee Westwood told British sports channel Sky Sports.
Starting hours before the competition begins on Friday morning and for hours after the winner is determined on Sunday evening, it is a non-stop emotional tug-of-war. The European and American fans each trying to outdo the other -- the Europeans singing “Ole, Ole, Ole,” and the Americans chanting, “USA, USA, USA”. The colorful, patriotic outfits. The roars of the crowd for the successes of the home team, and the jeers for the misfortunes of the visitors -- there is nothing like it in golf.
“The Ryder Cup is playing for your country,” PGA of America President Suzy Whaley told WUWM, a Milwaukee radio station. “And when you’re playing for your country in a team format, versus an individual format, it just brings in a whole new level of fan base to enjoy the event.”
Without fans there would be no iconic moments like the epic singles match in 2016 between Europe’s Rory McIlroy and America’s Patrick Reed. It was an emotional match with both players feeding off the fans, and one another. When McIlroy sank a long, improbable birdie putt on one hole, he turned to the partisan U.S. crowd, framed his ear and mouthed defiantly, “I can’t hear you.” Only to have Reed match that putt on that hole with one of his own, then friendly wagging his finger at McIlroy, and the two golfers exchanging high fives as they left the green.
Without fans there’d be no moments like the final day of the 1999 match when Justin Leonard’s 50-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole for Team USA capped the largest comeback in Cup history and set off a mass celebration on the green by America’s players, their wives, caddies, and fans.
Without fans the Ryder Cup would be nothing more than a glorified practice round.
Sometimes those fans can get out of hand. National pride becomes a little too intense, and when mixed with excessive consumption of adult beverages can lead to boorish, even crude and vulgar, behavior.
For instance, in 1999 American fans heckled Europe’s Colin Montgomerie, a favorite foil, so viciously and distastefully that Montgomerie’s opponent, the late Payne Stewart, had to ask the marshals to step in and control the crowds. Or, in 2016, when McIlroy had marshals remove a fan because of obscene remarks directed at the golfer.
‘No Fans, No Cup’
Which makes it more than a little surprising that the golfers -- who generally insist on quiet when playing a shot and get upset over an ill-timed cellphone chime or a camera lens shutter -- would campaign for spectators being present. Yet, universally players on both sides have said, “no fans, no Cup”, and a match without spectators “isn’t worth playing.”
“The Ryder Cup, the crowds make it, really,” said Westwood, who’s played on 11 Ryder Cup teams. “It’s an incredible atmosphere and they (the crowds) make the atmosphere, that’s what separates it from everything else.
“If there’s one sporting event that needs the fans, it’s the Ryder Cup.”
So, what are the options? Play without fans, postpone the event until next year, or skip it altogether and resume in 2022 in Italy. I can’t see the Americans liking that last option: giving up the home field – in this case, “home soil” – advantage. Europe has won the last six matches played overseas. The last time Team USA won on foreign soil was 1993. And, its only two wins in the last nine Cups – that’s 18 years -- have been when played in the United States
Of course, there is another consideration, like most everything in professional sports these days: money. The Ryder Cup is a financial windfall. It raises millions for charity, helps fill the coffers of the PGA of America, and is a major source of funding for the European Tour.
It also would have a tremendous economic impact on the Kohler, WI community. If the matches are played as planned, with the usual number of fans, it’s expected to bring in more than $130 million to the area. That’s an important consideration for Kohler, which – like most communities around the nation – has been hit hard economically by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is difficult to imagine the Ryder Cup without fans, Waugh said, because “the fans are the Ryder Cup.” No arguments here.
Imagine it’s the final day of the Ryder Cup. Tiger Woods, in the last singles match, stands on the 18th green, tied with Team Europe’s McIlroy. If Tiger makes the 20-foot birdie putt, Team USA wins the Cup. If Tiger misses, Team Europe is assured a halve in the match and a tie in the point total, and thus retains the Cup by virtue of having won in 2018.
Tiger drains the putt, lets out a “Tiger Roar”, turns toward the clubhouse, and is greeted by…silence.
Talk about anti-climatic.
Can a Ryder Cup be played without fans? Yes. Should it be? No. A Ryder Cup without fans would be like a ham sandwich without cheese, a peanut butter sandwich without jelly, a hot dog without the bun, or biscuits without gravy.
If the Ryder Cup can’t be held safely with fans in attendance, then postpone it until next year.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.
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