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Golf's greatest hour
Golf celebrated its greatest hour at the De Vere Belfry on Sunday 29th September 2002 at 4.54pm when the diminutive, unlikely figure of Paul McGinley holed a 10-foot putt on the 18th green. The putt itself was no big deal, many will claim to have holed 10-foot putts under pressure, but the consequences of it reverberated round the golfing world for it sealed European team victory in the highly significant 34th playing of the Ryder Cup.

But it did much more than that, much more, for it put to rest any residual concerns about the depth of quality in European golf.

Both the US and European teams may not have comprised the current best players in either Tour as a consequence of the September 11 tragedy and the postponement of the event, but they comprised a representative sample. The outcome of the cup was settled through inspiration and a capacity crowd that was not only well behaved but also as non-partisan as emotion would allow. It was generous and fitting that Curtis Strange should refer to the Belfry crowd's attitude. It was partisan perhaps, but it was certainly fair and respectful.

After Brookline it was a welcome relief to hear the ripples of applause in response to a well executed American shot and quite acceptable to experience the outburst of a hole winning European putt. The 34th playing of the Ryder cup will be remembered for the restoration of civility to the event. We have much to thank captains Torrance and Strange in this respect for had it been otherwise it is doubtful if the event could have survived.

The event, however, has more than survived; it has entered a new era. The margin of European victory by 15.5 to 12.5 points is the biggest winning margin by either side since 1985 when Europe took the honours by 16.5 to 11.5. Further, it means that in the last 10 playings of the cup, Europe has won five, the US, four, with one halved. Many of us of a certain age never thought that we would witness such success in our lifetime. Indeed, I can recall a time when I thought that we would never win the Ryder Cup again - such was the level of US dominance before 1983.

In this new era of collective European confidence, players and fans alike have expectations of success clearly, and thankfully, not yet shared by the bookmakers. Among the exorbitantly expensive offerings of the De Vere Belfry hospitality - I wouldn't consider telling you the cost of a drink and a sandwich - was an on-course betting facility. Not renowned for their generosity and surely unaware of Sam Torrance's genius for emotive inspiration and insight, this facility, on Sunday morning was offering odds of 5 to 2 on a European victory and, even more surprising, 13 to 2 on virgin suicides: that Fasth, McGinley, Fulke and Price would all lose.

At 2 pm, the odds were 7 to 4 on the US and 4 to 7 on a European win. Odds were not available on any of the virgins. We are never likely to see betting scrambling scenes like those witnessed at The Belfry this year and I very much doubt if on-course betting on matchplay has much of a future. Bookies may be sceptics but they learn fast.

In retrospect it is not hard to understand the bookies scepticism. One has to look a long way down the Sony rankings to cover all of the European team. This fact, however, only serves to highlight failings of the rankings system and in particular its reflection of the money available on the US Tour. The European Tour players have shown that they are as good as, indeed better than the journeyman of the US Tour and, with a point to prove, capable of pulling together to prove it.

Torrance, and his deputies Ian Woosnam and Mark James were the perfect staffing for the company. All three have long felt that they have never enjoyed the same recognition as the US stars. Langer may have long enjoyed the Florida sunshine but he has also long smarted at the patronising attitude of US golf: Montgomerie has for almost as long ached over his treatment by the US galleries and press alike. If Sam exercised his best judgement in choosing green speeds, picking pairings and sequence of singles play, he showed his genius in his support of his building blocks for the foundations of his team.

In Monty and Langer he had the exact requirements. Even if neither wins another event, they will be immortalised in the collective memory of the Ryder Cup 2002. Monty was magnificent in taking 4.5 points out of a possible 5 but, more importantly, he made it look effortless and an enjoyable experience. Out went Mrs Doubtfire and even if not exactly replaced by a feisty Ruby Wax, it was close. Langer never makes anything look easy but it is equally clear that behind the bland, prim precision lies a passionate and committed man. If Langer lacks lustre the beauty of his golf is enough in itself. If Montgomerie lacks mercy for every US golfer of repute, it is not only understandable but also sadistically satisfying.

Torrance revealed genius and bravery in putting out his best in the opening singles matches. It could have all gone so terribly wrong had they struggled. That they did not resulted in 4.5 points out of the first six games and everyone after that was inspired. Sam gambled on the match being over by the time Love, Mickelson and Woods came into contention, and that is exactly what happened. Price beating Mickelson was marvellous but simply served only to seal the issue, making the outcome of Love and Woods' games irrelevant.

It all came right at The Belfry this weekend. Golf as we know it will never be the same again. The game itself was the real winner for it beat all the odds, defied all the hype and despite the hullabaloo emerged unscathed and supreme.

©    30 - SEPTEMBER 2002

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