As the world mourns the passing of golf’s undisputed “King” on the eve of the 41st edition of golf’s biennial contest between the United States and Europe, one has to think that the Americans will have a thirteenth man in the locker room this week as they try to win their first Ryder Cup since 2008. Arnold Palmer loved this event and in six appearances as a player he won a total of 23 points, a record that stood for 24 years until it was broken by Nick Faldo in 1997. How US Captain Davis Love III harnesses the emotion surrounding Palmer’s death could well turn the tables on Darren Clarke’s European team.
For the man who almost singlehandedly redefined the country club game, the Ryder Cup was about something more than playing for money. To Palmer, it was something grander and more personal as it was for Spain’s Seve Ballesteros who was the inspiration behind Europe’s Ryder Cup resurgence. A mainstay of the European team for much of the 80s and 90s, Seve scored 22½ points in 37 matches and his partnership with fellow Spaniard José María Olazábal was the most successful in the history of the competition with 11 wins and two ties in 15 pairs matches. Just as Palmer brought the game to the masses, Ballesteros helped elevate public interest in the Ryder Cup.
If there was a turning point in the modern era of the matches, it was the 1989 event at The Belfry in England that ignited tensions between the teams and saw the beginnings of a feud between Ballesteros and American Paul Azinger. After holding the cup for more than two decades, the United States team lost both the 1985 and 1987 matches and in 1989 the pressure was on the US side. Early in their singles match, Ballesteros sought to change a scuffed ball for a new one under the Rules of Golf and when Azinger disputed whether the ball was unfit for play, Ballesteros reportedly said, “Is this the way you want to play today?” The matches ended in a tie, with the European side retaining the cup.
The tension between the teams and the feud between Ballesteros and Azinger escalated in 1991 at Kiawah Island dubbed “The War on the Shore”. On the first morning of the competition, Azinger and Chip Beck were paired against Ballesteros and José María Olazábal in a foursome match when Azinger accused Ballesteros of gamesmanship for clearing his throat during Beck’s shots. That intensity produced what may be regarded as one of the best pairs matches in history, with the Spaniards winning 2 & 1. The United States won that year and the Ryder Cup became anything but a friendly contest again.
In 2008, Seve was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour and died May 7, 2011, at the age 54. At the 2012 Ryder Cup, the first to be played after his death, the European team wore navy blue and white on the final day, the colours Seve traditionally wore on the last day of a tournament. On their uniforms they stitched the silhouette of the iconic Ballesteros’ “salute” from his win at the 1984 Open Championship.
Fast forward to Hazeltine this week and the swashbuckling image of golf’s first authentic hero and what US Captain Davis Love III does to honor “The King” could well have a profound impact on the American side and the on-going battle for golf’s greatest team prize.
With autumn leaves about to blush in northern climates, it’s time to start reflecting on your golf performance this season. Write down what you worked on this year, what needs work, and what your goals are going forward. If you’re content with your current level of play you should be asking yourself what you are going to do to retain that level into next season. If you’re not happy with your game, you should be asking yourself what you can do now and in the off-season to get off to a faster start next year. As Ben Hogan famously said, “Every day that I miss practicing takes one day longer to get good.”
What the average player should be doing is working on their game now before the season ends. It’s never too late to take lessons to get started even at the end of the season. The best players in the world have coaches who they see regularly. Mastering the proper swing fundamentals and short game technique are things that you can take into the off-season and practice at home on the carpet or in front of a mirror. People think that you need to hit balls to get better which is simply not true. If you can regularly practice the proper swing positions in front of a full length mirror, you’ll have those new positions perfected by the time spring rolls around.
The other thing you’ll want to start is a workout program or better yet work with a qualified personal trainer to develop a routine that is golf specific with lots of stretches and balance exercises, both of which will have a measurable impact on distance and consistency. Yoga is also a wonderful way of increasing flexibility and something that can be done throughout the entire year.
The off-season is also a great time to catch up on your reading. The book Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf by Ben Hogan, is a timeless classic that covers the key fundamentals where all great golf begins. Another is The Natural Golf Swing by the late Canadian golfing great George Knudson who takes Hogan’s book one step further when it comes to actually swinging the club. It’s complete with a series of exercises that can easily be performed at home. Both books are worth reading over and over again. And if there’s a book on the mental side of golf, it’s anything written by Dr. Bob Rotella the bestselling author of Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect and the most sought after mental coach in the game. His book Putting Out of Your Mind, is arguably the best book ever written on this essential skill and one of the key elements of a winning game – great putting.
Finally, have your equipment checked by a qualified club fitter. While it’s tempting to have the latest equipment every year, there’s no magic cure to posting lower scores. When you don’t see immediate improvement you start looking at new equipment again and it becomes a vicious circle. Checking your lie angles, making sure that you have the right shafts, and a new set of grips to start the new season can make all the difference in the world.
There is a lot on the line this week at the TOUR Championship when it gets underway September 22 at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. In addition to a purse of $8.5 million for the 30-man field, the FedEx Cup trophy and a $10 million season-ending bonus are all up for grabs. Add to that PGA Tour Player of the Year honors and the final Ryder Cup pick by Davis Love III and we’re in for an exciting season finale.
For starters, Dustin Johnson will have a chance to settle the Player of the Year debate this week. With a U.S. Open win, a World Golf Championship title at Firestone, and a playoff win at the BMW Championship, he appears to have the edge over world number one Jason Day. Johnson also leads the PGA Tour with 14 top-10 finishes and with a win and/or the FedEx Cup title he should take the crown. Day, on the other hand, has three titles of his own this year, including a wire-to-wire win at The Players and could tilt the Player of the Year argument in his favour with a win at the TOUR Championship.
And if that’s not enough drama, after the FedEx Cup champion is crowned on Sunday, US Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III will announce his final Ryder Cup pick on NBC during halftime of Sunday Night Football. When he named three of his four wildcard picks just over a week ago, one glaring omission was two-time Masters champion and world number seven Bubba Watson. The apparent snub was brought into focus by the fact Rickie Fowler was one of those who got the nod instead. Fowler has had a dismal Ryder Cup record – the only man to play as many as eight Ryder Cup matches without winning one. Love’s other two picks were Matt Kuchar and J.B. Holmes. And with Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger, Ryan Moore, and Mr. 58 Jim Furyk all making strong cases to be the final player added to the US Team, Bubba Watson is sadly on the brink of missing out on Hazeltine.
Lee Westwood, who was one of Darren Clarke’s wildcard picks for the European squad, making this his tenth Ryder Cup appearance when the matches get underway September 30, believes that Watson’s stark omission from America’s Ryder Cup team came down to US captain Davis Love not considering him a team player. Some think Love is simply over-thinking the process and with a win at the TOUR Championship this week, Watson could well turn the tables in his favour. Whatever the outcome, and with so much on the line this week, Twitter should be ablaze come Sunday evening.