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Editorial Notebook: All Glory to the Golfers

By Thomas B. Cotton

If you paid undue attention to your classes last week, you unfortunately neglected the greatest event in sports: the Ryder Cup, which took place at The Country Club just down the road in Brookline. The Ryder Cup is a biennial golf tournament between teams of twelve Americans and twelve Europeans. It consists of twenty-six matches, each worth one point. The defending champion--in this case, Europe--needs fourteen points to retain the Cup, while the other team needs fourteen and a half points to win the Cup. Unlike other tournaments, the players receive no compensation.

The Ryder Cup is the greatest and noblest sporting event for three reasons. First, it is rare enough to solicit special interest, but not so rare that it ever slips one's mind. The Superbowl, the NBA finals, and the World Series occur annually: there's always next year. Golfers, however, must wait two long years for another chance. And while the quadrennial Olympics are too remote to impress itself upon one's mind, golfers begin to compete for slots on the next Ryder Cup team as soon as one Ryder Cup ends.

Second, the Ryder Cup is invariably competitive and intensely stressful. Superbowls often end before halftime, and while the World Series and NBA finals are best-of-seven series, one team often wins well before the seventh game. It has been over twenty years, however, since more than two points separated the Ryder Cup teams. Thus, every single shot, whether on Friday morning or Sunday afternoon, can make all the difference. Moreover, golf demands deliberate and thoughtful, not reflexive and instinctive, activity, so the pressure weighs upon the competitors unlike any other sport.

Third and most important, national honor and glory are at stake in the Ryder Cup. In other golf tournaments, one plays for money and personal distinction, but in the Ryder Cup one plays for one's country. (The Olympics resemble the Ryder Cup in this sense, though to a much lesser degree. Who can forget the Nike partisans of the 1992 Dream Team refusing to wear Reebok warm-ups?) It serves no purpose to describe any further how it feels to carry on one's shoulders the hopes and fortunes of one's fellow citizens, because every competitor calls the feeling "indescribable."

Yet it serves a compelling purpose to note the similarity between the Ryder Cup and battle. Americans once venerated their generals; today, we venerate our sports heroes. This development is both healthy and sad; healthy because it means we do not suffer the depredations of war, but sad because it deprives us of displays of great virtue. The example of a Grant or a Eisenhower awes us while also instructing us in courage, resilience, loyalty, and the other virtues necessary to compete and succeed.

Without great soldiers, we can receive such instruction, for instance, from Justin Leonard, whose sixty-foot putt on the seventeenth hole after two-and-a-half days of poor play sealed the American victory. We can look also to his 11 teammates and their captain Ben Crenshaw, who with Leonard staged the largest comeback in Ryder Cup history. They could have lost their will and surrendered, but instead they persevered to vindicate the honor of America. They may not be great soldiers, but they are great Americans who provided great examples of virtue for their countrymen. And for that, we should celebrate them and, more to the point, honor them by following their example in our lives.

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