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Gentlemanly competition haspotential to get out of hand

WashPost: Ryder Cup rivals say they will be warm afterwards, but conduct during matches could be chilling
Sutton Announces U.S. Ryder Cup Team
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton said Tuesday that U.S. players have apologized for five years for their conduct in the Ryder Cup in 1999. “So y'all need to forget about that.”Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The Ryder Cup matches were founded in 1927, in part, to promote sportsmanship and civility, and those ideals have been predominant themes in the run-up to what has become one of golf's most widely anticipated and fiercely contested events.

But once the matches begin here Friday at Oakland Hills Country Club, those goals may turn out to be more difficult to achieve than they were to talk about.

In their initial comments this week, the captains, Hal Sutton of the United States and European counterpart Bernhard Langer, have said most of the proper things. After the European team's plane arrived at Detroit's Metro Airport late Monday for a formal welcoming ceremony, Langer was holding the actual Ryder Cup, which has been in Europe's possession since its 15 1/2-to-12 1/2 victory two years ago at the Belfry in England.

"We're not going to arm-wrestle for this thing," Sutton told Langer. "We've kissed and we've hugged, and this is about as close as we're going to get on this thing, Bernard."

"Probably will be," Langer said. "We'll still be friends afterward, no matter what."

"No matter what," Sutton said.

And yet, this biennial three-day match-play competition has a recent history of contentiousness, both from the players and the spectators.

During the 1999 event, held at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., fans hurled nasty insults toward both sides in the first two days. The European team was further outraged Sunday, when players stormed the 17th green after Justin Leonard's 45-foot putt all but clinched the Americans' improbable comeback victory. The celebration happened before Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal had a chance to stroke a putt that would have extended his match with Leonard, a putt he missed after the green was finally cleared. Plenty of feelings were bruised on both sides that day and remained so for months thereafter.

At the time, PGA of America officials who run this event conceded there were too many people on the property, 40,000 spectators a day. When the 1988 U.S. Open was held at the same venue, U.S. Golf Association officials felt that no more than 25,000 fans should be allowed in for a pleasant experience.

"The players were not behaving very well for several years," Gary Player, who will again captain the international side in next September's Presidents Cup, recently told the Detroit News. "Europeans slow-playing the Americans, and then the Americans, when Justin Leonard holed that putt and all the wives and caddies and children and aunties and uncles all ran on the green. I'd never seen anything like that in my life. And when it was the 'War by the Shore' [at Kiawah Island in 1991]? A golf match? Pathetic."

Good sense and sensibility made a comeback at the most recent Ryder Cup at the Belfry. Crowds were smaller, and all alcohol consumption was confined to an area off the course. The memory of the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States the year before may also have lent a healthy perspective to the event.

This year, PGA of America officials are estimating that 38,000 spectators a day will attend, but they insist Oakland Hills features more spectator room than the Country Club. Unlike '99, alcohol consumption will be limited to a well-marshaled area away from the competition.

"Basically, once they go in, they can have all the fun they want," M.G. Orender, president of the PGA of America, said Tuesday. "But they are not going to bring the beverages back out on the golf course. . . . We learned something at the Belfry. And the security, our people here know that anyone who exhibits unruly behavior, we're going to get them off the property. We're not going to tolerate it. We're going to conduct these matches in the spirit they were intended to be. We want the fans to be loud and have fun, but we expect them to conduct themselves properly."

None of the crowd-control measures will diminish the competitive spirit of either team.

At his team's first dinner Monday night, Sutton invited former NBA star Michael Jordan to address his players. At the same session, Sutton said he also had a long talk with Tiger Woods, who has a 5-8-2 record in three previous Cups.

"Nobody needs to give Tiger Woods a pep talk," Sutton said. "All we have to do is just say, 'Hey Tiger, it's time you felt this is important. . . . This is going to be another barometer of success for you. Let's give it all you've got, and let's lead this team.' . . . I think y'all might see some of Tiger's greatest golf this week, so buckle your chin straps."

And when he was asked if he also planned to summon a touch of national pride and patriotism this week, Sutton swiveled around in his chair so that his audience could see the American flag on the back of his shirt.

"Y'all see that flag?" he said. "Anything I can summon up, that's what I'm going to do."

As for what Langer earlier had described as the "over-the-top" American celebration at the '99 Cup after Leonard's putt, Sutton also got right to the point.

"We've apologized for five years for what happened in '99," he said. "So y'all need to forget about that. The American players, if we had it to do all over again, would not have run out on the green. But the truth of the matter is, we're going to be ourselves. I've told all our players . . . be a gentleman and be yourself. I can't be concerned or try to control everybody else in the world.

"So we're going out there and we're going to be ourselves. No more apologies or anything else."