The gloves were off even before they teed off. Practising at the range before their Sunday singles encounter at the Ryder Cup to the strident tune of ‘The Final Countdown’, both Patrick Reed—the young American who has won five times on the PGA Tour (and once on the European Tour)—and Rory McIlRoy, the reigning FedEx champion, were already fired up. Their match, billed as the marquee encounter of the day, began with McIlroy entering a hostile arena with the crowd chanting ‘USA, USA’. Reed, who entered next, worked the home gallery at Hazeltine National into a frenzy. For people watching at home, it was a striking reminder of how different the bi-annual matchplay contest is from any other tournament in the world of golf.
No polite applause, no quarter for civility and no stoic players. What you get instead are fired-up players eyeballing each other, raucous (especially in the US) galleries baying for blood and an overall level of tension that is almost antithetic to the cultured milieu that is par for the course in professional golf.
And it brought out some of the finest display of golf that either of the two golfers has ever displayed. The cool and clinical McIlRoy was anything but: roaring with passion, as he traded birdie after birdie with Reed and carrying the crowd with him. This was not the player who plays on the PGA Tour. This was the European, the enemy, who was taking the battle to Captain America. The two riled each other, mocked each other’s trademark moves: first, Reed taunted McIlRoy with a bow after a birdie to halve the sixth, adding a finger wag. McIlRoy got back with Reed’s famous shush motion to the crowd after halving the seventh hole with a birdie.
The moment of the match, and arguably of the 2016 Ryder Cup, came on the eighth hole when McIlroy drained a mammoth putt for birdie and immediately chafed the gallery. “Ahh! Come on! I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!” he yelled. Reed came back immediately with a birdie putt of his own to halve the hole and wagged his finger at McIlroy whilst bellowing at the crowd to amp up the noise. It was the most tremendous display of bare-knuckled competitive hostility I’ve ever witnessed—almost like a Roman duel to death. Perhaps both realised the rarity of the moment—golfers aren’t expected to lose their composure like this—and fist-pumped and gave each other a brief hug after that moment. “We were congratulating each other after playing some great shots,” McIlroy said after the match. “It was all played in the right spirit, which was great. I think that’s the most important thing. We mocked each other a little bit and whatever; at the same time, it was all in good fun. No problems with Patrick Reed at all. He’s been immense this week.”
The show of emotion continued, as both made the turn all-square and the crowd grew more and more vociferous almost reminiscent of the ‘Duel in the Sun’—that legendary match between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in 1977. At that showdown, the crowd grew so frenzied at one point that Nicklaus simply sat down on his golf bag and told the marshals that “…things are getting out of hand, we’ll wait for a while.” At Hazeltine, the crowd did not disrupt the match, but it was manic as ever seen on a golf course in recent history. There were chants of, “….sweet Caroline, woe, woe, woe!” aimed at McIlroy in a reference to his sudden break-up last year with tennis star Caroline Wozniaki. McIlroy responded with alacrity screaming back that, “times have never been so good!”
There were cheers for missed putts and low blows of all kind, but it was uncannily quiet when the US wrapped up the Cup on the 18th green. That was the second moment of the event: McIlroy got up and tried to rouse the crowd into chants of ‘USA, USA’ for his American pals. If you’re looking for sportsmanship, then you don’t have to look much farther than that.
The 17-11 drubbing is the biggest one Europe has taken at the Ryder Cup and it was clear right from the onset that the Americans had the upper hand in the tournament, but at the end of the day, the result, as clichéd as it may seem, was not the point.
Just the fact that these players, superstars and millionaires all, are so passionate and driven (even if once every two years) at an event that has everything to do with pride and nothing to do with rankings or money is a triumph for the game. And befittingly, every once in a while, that gives fans a spectacle, the likes of which have not been seen before. Golf fans are likely to be prejudiced, and as one in that company, I would rate the Ryder Cup as possibly the most unique sporting event in the world.
Far from Hazeltine National, there was heartening news for Indian golf aficionados, as Gaganjeet Bhullar and his sublime swing made a comeback after three years in the woods. Thwarted by a wrist injury, the Kapurthala-based pro made the best return possible by winning the Shinhan Donhae Open in Korea. Bhullar wrapped up his sixth victory on the Asian Tour and 16th overall in thrilling fashion, dropping five birdies in six holes on the home stretch on the final day. At the time of writing this column, the 28-year-old was also leading after the first round of the BNI Indonesian Masters. If he goes on to win it today, I won’t be surprised: Bhullar has the game to compete with the best in the world, and injuries notwithstanding, I would bet on him winning on the PGA Tour sooner than later. The win leapfrogged him 406 places in the world rankings—now ranked 268, he will be hoping to get back into the top 100 in the world.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game