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Friday, September 27, 2002
Easy Ryders

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Where's Ben Crenshaw when you need him?

Larry Johnson cartoon
 
In case you hadn't noticed (and you probably hadn't), the Ryder Cup began today with the sort of attention normally devoted to UPN's new fall prime-time lineup. Postponed last year, the Cup sort of sneaked up on us this year, with none of the excessive hype, flag-waving and chest-pounding that usually surrounds the tournament. The Americans haven't shown up in camouflage. No one is whining about not getting paid. And Crenshaw hasn't asked anyone if they are now, or ever have been, a member of the Communist Party.

Good Lord, no one has even trashed a hotel room and the Russian mob hasn't gotten involved yet. And people dare to call this a major international competition?

This year's only controversy, in fact, was Woods acknowledging in a rare moment of candor that there were a "million reasons" why he would rather win the American Express championship than the Ryder Cup. He said later that his comment was taken out of context, but everyone knows he really meant it. And I dare say he also was speaking for everyone except Crenshaw and Seve Ballesteros. The Ryder Cup just doesn't mean nearly as much as it did in recent years.

Sept. 11, naturally, is the major reason for that. When the attacks postponed the Ryder Cup last year, everyone had a chance to reconsider things and realize that we had been taking an essentially meaningless golf tournament a little too seriously.

Elin Nordegren
Everybody, including Tiger's gal Elin Nordegren, is caught up in the new spirit of the Ryder Cup.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting for a minute that Sept. 11 has lessened our passion for sports. It hasn't. A glimpse at sports attendance figures, ratings, merchandise sales, fantasy football leagues, Barry Bonds baseball lawsuits or ESPN.com hits tells you that. We still love sports, and we were as excited as usual for the World Series, Super Bowl and Final Four. And we are still interested in rooting for our country in international competition (for crying out loud, the Canadian pairs figures skaters made the cover of Time magazine during the Olympics, and I think the line is still out the door at the Roots store). And our interest in golf continues to rise.

It's just the Ryder Cup in which we've lost interest. Actually, it's not so much that we've lost interest as our interest has simply returned to the modest level it was at before the Cup started getting out of hand with jingoism in 1991.

That's the year the Cup was at Kiawah Island and some U.S. golfers wore camouflage caps, Bush the Elder delivered a pep talk and writers referred to the tournament as the "War on the Shore." With each ensuing tournament, the Cup took on more weight than Craig Stadler as the competitors steadily pushed the patriotism angle. In 1997, the Europeans took some nasty cuts at the Americans, while Ballesteros roamed the course on his cart, urging on his team to victory as if he were a Republican Army general attempting to capture Saragossa. Two years later, the U.S. team turned the 17th green into the world's most exclusive mosh pit, while Crenshaw questioned more people's patriotism than a HUAC committee.

What an ol' cuss Crenshaw was that year. He practically equated planting the pin on the 18th hole with raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

Ben Crenshaw
Ben Crenshaw's not at the Ryder Cup, but he might be working undercover at Shoney's.
It all got a little silly, and Tiger isn't the only one who realizes it now. The Ryder Cup isn't a war. It isn't a United Nations vote on arms inspections. It isn't Operation Enduring Fairway. It's just a nice, spirited competition among the world's best and richest golfers. And there's nothing wrong with regarding it as simply that and nothing more.

This is like when everyone got all wound up after the United States lost the America's Cup a couple of decades ago. Appalled that the U.S. entry had lost a championship in a sport it once dominated, everyone suddenly tuned in to see whether Dennis Conner could win it back for "America." And after he did, we remembered why Americans had never cared whether "we" had the Cup in the first place -- it's a boring competition for millionaires who walk around private clubs dressing like Tony Curtis in "Some Like It Hot." And then we promptly stopped watching it again.

Oh, we'll keep watching the Ryder Cup and we'll remain mildly interested in the outcome. But I think we'll also keep its national importance in proper perspective.

And frankly, it's better that way.

I mean, it's not as if there's really anything at stake, like Olympic figure skating.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at cuffscaple@hotmail.com.