Europe's '15th club' will be too much

Updated: September 13, 2004, 12:49 PM ET
By Thomas L. Friedman | Golf Digest Contributing Editor

When the U.S. women's Solheim Cup team lost in Sweden last September, it made a frustrating footnote for American team golf: For the first time ever, American golfers were not in possession of either the Solheim Cup or the Ryder Cup. And coming on top of the loss of the Walker Cup in men's amateur competition a week earlier, it meant that there was a very serious silver shortage on this side of the Atlantic, with only the Curtis Cup still hoisted by American hands.

If this were kindergarten, we know what the teacher would have written at the bottom of the report card of each member of the defeated American golf teams: "Does not play well with others..."

Paul McGinley
McGinley made the putt that sunk the American team at The Belfry in 2002.

Lord knows, anything is possible in golf, and maybe this epidemic of foreign victories over American golf teams is just one of those solar-lunar eclipses that happens in sports. Or maybe not. I think there is a message here -- there is an explanation for this epidemic -- but it has to do with political science, not swing science.

But before I get to what I think is behind this trend, let me start by getting rid of the things I don't think explain it. I don't think it has to do with the fact that some European golfers come from countries where team competitions -- either four-ball or other varieties -- are stressed from an early age at the club level and in junior competitions.

In the latest Ryder and Solheim Cups, it was in the singles competition where the Americans got trounced, with the winning putt at The Belfry being made by -- save this one for Trivial Pursuit -- Irishman Paul McGinley. McGinley made an eight-foot par putt to take a half point from future U.S. Open winner Jim Furyk, rivaling the victory of his teammate Welshman Phillip Price -- someone even Trivial Pursuit wouldn't make you remember. He closed out Phil Mickelson, 3 and 2, with a 25-foot putt.

Something is going on here. No question, with so many European men and women college and professional golfers now playing full-time in the U.S., the parity between us and them has become closer and closer. And you know the line -- "These guys [and gals] are good," so on any given day anyone can beat anyone else at the professional level.

But that's what makes this trend so interesting. If there is now real parity between European and American golfers, why is it that the Europeans seem to be winning these team matches so much more often? It must have to do with something intangible.

To get to the bottom of this, one must start by acknowledging the fact that team golf is an utterly artificial concept -- as artificial as "team bowling" or "team archery." Golf is an individual sport, even when it is forced into a team format, and therefore success is about individual motivation. So to me the real question is: Why are the individual players on the European teams so much more motivated to win than their American counterparts -- so motivated that even their nobodies keep beating America's world-ranked somebodies?

The answer is politics -- at many levels. Outside of the Olympics, "For Americans, sports are not a vehicle for nationalism and national pride, the way sports have become in modern Europe," says Michael Mandelbaum, professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins, who deals with this exact issue in his book, "The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They See When They Do." "Our first national sport was baseball, but for us the 'World Series' is a competition between two American teams. It is a competition with ourselves." The same in the NBA and the NFL, where the Super Bowl is played only with American teams and we speak about the "world-champion" Detroit Pistons, when the only people they beat were in Los Angeles or Indiana.

The most popular sports in Europe, however, are soccer, rugby and cricket, and all of them have real global competitions, where each country's national pride is at stake.

"Competition between different national soccer teams in Europe has become, for Europeans, their modern substitute for war and the main vehicle for nationalist expression," Mandelbaum adds. "At a time when they are losing sovereignty to the European Union and power to the rest of the world, soccer is where the last vestiges of the most powerful sentiment in the world-nationalism get channeled in Europe. In fact, soccer is the major cause of national violence in Europe. It is the only thing that Europeans will riot about anymore."

It was no accident, therefore, that after the last Ryder Cup, Europe's team captain, Sam Torrance, confessed about who he went to most for advice on how to mold a European team: Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of the famed Manchester United soccer team, and Sven-Goran Eriksson, manager of England's national soccer team.

In other words, European teams are winning more not because they come from a tradition of four-ball, but because they come from a tradition of one-ball: Soccer -- a tradition where national identity is much more at stake in sports competitions.

Then add to that what I would call their 15th club: "The Jesse James Factor." Everyone wanted to say they shot Jesse James. Well, America today is Jesse James. We are the biggest, richest, fastest draw on the block. Everyone measures themselves against us, everyone gets up to play us, and everyone wants to beat our brains in. If we beat them it means much less than if they beat us.

In short, America is to the world, what Tiger Woods has been to the rest of the PGA Tour -- the man to beat, the one worth bragging about. (This Jesse James factor also works in reverse: When the American soccer team did really well by reaching the quarterfinals in the World Cup competition in 2002, most Americans barely noticed, but everyone in Europe did.)

Anyone who has watched a Ryder Cup match knows that Americans and American players also get up for them, but, I would argue, with one huge, huge difference. I would call it: "The Mark Calcavecchia Factor." The European side desperately wants to win because their identities will be nourished by it. American teams desperately don't want to lose, not because they want to win so badly -- it doesn't mean that much to them -- but because they don't want to face the ridicule of losing badly.

Remember "The War by the Shore," the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island? Bernhard Langer missed that six-footer to retain the Cup, but it barely affected his career and certainly not his self-image. Mark Calcavecchia, by contrast, lost the last four holes to Colin Montgomerie to halve their match, and he went into a meltdown in Kiawah and afterward. Langer was sad. Calcavecchia was nearly suicidal -- and his team eventually won!

The reason Calcavecchia was so despondent was because he knew the enduring truth of this trans-Atlantic competition: The Americans are remembered if they lose. The Europeans are remembered if they win. And Calc did not want to be remembered.

That is the 15th club that the Europeans bring to every match. The more equal in ability and training the two sides become, the more this extra club matters. Because, as we all know, golf at the highest professional level is 90 percent about what is happening between the ears. And because of America's relationship to the world, there is much more pressure between the ears of the American team golfers not to lose than there is on the European team golfers to win.

It just takes that tiny intangible, just that whisper of politics in your backswing, and all sorts of strange things can happen.

Thomas L. Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign-affairs columnist for The New York Times.

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