Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 10 July 2014

James Lawton: Tiger Woods versus Rory McIlroy could be Ryder Cup's biggest ever duel

Europe's Rory McIlroy takes his pictures with some fans during a practice round at the Ryder Cup PGA golf tournament Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012, at the Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Ill. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

This is not one of the world's greatest golf courses – certainly not Augusta National or Pebble Beach or St Andrews – but it is long, has been set up for a blaze of birdies to excite the American crowd to a high level of patriotism and here in the Fall it is hard to imagine a more beautiful piece of sporting landscape.

At the dawn of the 39th Ryder Cup, flights of Canada geese head south in fly-pasts imperious enough to challenge the ceremonial resources of the United States Air Force.



The foliage, on cue, is an artist's palette of russet and gold, fading green and yellow framed by a huge sky of steel blue.



The autumn air is as uplifting as a glass of the finest champagne.



It also helps that this is the scene for potentially one of the greatest collisions in the history of sport.



Yes, any sport – something indeed which in the peculiar way of golf when it brings so many of its great players together every two years, and so drastically changes its form, can compete in drama and intrigue with anything you care to mention.



Ali-Frazier was more elemental, no doubt, Nadal-Federer on Wimbledon's Centre Court was unforgettable and just a few weeks after Spain this summer retained their European football title with one performance at least for the ages, Usain Bolt recaptured the imagination of the world.



So what, quite, is on the menu here over the next few days?



There is, beyond question, a guarantee of superlative golf action and a relentless edge as the American captain, Davis Love III, calls for another explosion of wild gallery support which helped retard the growth of Europe's ascendency at Kiawah Island in 1991, Brookline in 1999 and Valhalla four years ago – and Jose Maria Olazabal counters by dressing his men in the blue of a Seve Ballesteros rhapsody and says that there could be no better memorial to the great man than some of their best golf.



Yet beyond all the urgings of the captains, and the possibility that the burning hot, and now fabulously rich American rookie Brandt Snedeker could further augment his glory these next few days while confirming his team's status as narrow betting favourites, there is one ultimate prospect that on Sunday would carry this Ryder Cup on to another dimension.



It is the chance that if, as expected, two days of team golf in the foursomes and the fourballs leave the issue much too close to call, both Love III and Olazabal will seek out their best chance of vital momentum at the start of the 12 singles.



What they might just do is create the most anticipated hand-to-hand duel in the history of the contest conceived 85 years ago by old Sam Ryder, the St Albans corn merchant who wanted to sow a new spirit in his favourite game.



The captains might write down the names Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy at the head of their lists, put them into envelopes and then, who knows, slip them into the letter box of sporting legend.



The collision would give McIlroy yet another chance to show that in his youthful inventions, his freedom of spirit, he has indeed surpassed the Tiger more significantly than merely in the rankings of the world game. In a most extraordinary set-piece of vying ambition, and perhaps sharply contrasting levels of self-belief, the 23-year-old from Holywood, Ulster, would have the chance to mark his move to America in the most spectacular fashion.



It wouldn't be so much a coming of age – that happened when he won the US Open and the PGA major titles by the length of nearby Chicago's Michigan Avenue – as a declaration written in the big blue sky. For the Tiger, it would perhaps be a last stand, one in which he might just re-assert some of his old levels of command and push away, at least for a while, the suspicion that beyond the uncertainties of his swing there has been a critical loss of nerve.



If it was a fight, it would choke the traffic around Madison Square Garden. If it was cricket, it would fill every tier of Eden Gardens in Calcutta. If it was football, there would be standing room only in the Nou Camp or San Siro.



That it might happen, by design or just plain old serendipity, is the most alluring promise of this Ryder Cup but then if it disappears in the autumnal mist of tomorrow evening's singles' announcement we will hardly be bereft of a superb competitive edge.



The pressure on even the most brilliantly gifted players will rise sharply, and if history is any guide, maybe uncontrollably.



A veteran virtuoso like Phil Mickelson will be hard pressed to improve one of the tournament's most underwhelming records: played 34, won 11, lost 17, halved 2. Luke Donald, who unlike the American, still labours to make his breakthrough in the majors, has the much superior figures of eight wins, two losses and one halved but this week he was recounting vividly the anxieties that invaded him at Oakland Hills, Detroit, eight years ago.



He arrived in Michigan, he reported, in a mood touching serenity. His drive was in full working order, as was his short game – and blood pressure. He wondered, frankly, what all the fuss about.



"Everything changed," he recalls, "when I walked to the first tee. The nerves really kicked in. I was very surprised how nervous I got, how something happened to me when they announced my name."



He sent his drive 50 yards right of the fairway, a potential disaster rescued by his fourball partner Paul McGinley. "I had a hard time putting the tee in the ground because my knees went wobbly. I was probably the most nervous I've ever been on a golf course. There is nothing like it."



Love is hoping that an American crowd performance as raucous, if not as outrageously unsportsmanlike, as anything we have seen in the past, will help achieve the same kind of anxieties in the European team this morning. He has also been keen to stress the rugged sports tradition of the blue-collar Windy City and its cast list of iconic heroes.



Among such figures, who include the legendary running backs Red Grange and Walter Payton, golf fan Michael Jordan has been elected to No 1 status. "Let us have the spirit of Michael Jordan," Love has said.



No doubt Jordan will provide significant inspiration as he prowls the fairways, but if the American team wanted the ultimate in competitive example they might well have considered the ferocious Chicago Bears line-backer Dick Butkus of the Sixties and Seventies.



The fabled Butkus was such a by-word for controlled aggression that it was said that at the height of the Cold War the CIA might have nominated him as the leading candidate for the job of taking out the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev. After one visiting NFL team trailed away from Soldier Field following a fearful beating they had another shock when a truck ran into the back of their bus as they arrived at O'Hare Airport. "It's probably Butkus," somebody groaned.



The shirt numbers of Butkus were retired by the Bears and the University of Illinois, an honouring of supreme, muscular effort which provoked a modest response from the man who has spent much of his time campaigning to drive steroids out of American college sport. "People think that when I'm not playing football I walk on all fours and gnaw uncooked red meat. It's not true. I just quite like to win."



Such, anyway, is the level of commitment now being demanded of the American team by their captain and the people of one of the world's sturdiest sports communities. Olazabal merely says: "Play your game – and remember Seve."



It is still another reason to believe that, with or without Woods versus McIlroy, the geese are for a day or two at least heading in the wrong direction.

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