It was the year that Phil Mickelson so nearly made it on to the highest plateau; the year Monty sadly, and surely terminally, speared his own high ambition; the year Europe placed a second emphatic foot on the collective neck of the United States Ryder Cup team. And, of course, it was the year that Tiger Eldrick Woods continued to do what he does best, which is to win Majors and dominate in that silky, sulky fashion that has become his trademark. Another season, another reason, for yelling whoopee.
While each golfing year has its high and low points, the core narrative is always written by the four Majors. The rest is embroidery, sometimes very pretty but embroidery nonetheless. Except every other year when the Ryder Cup matches stick their oar in and often edge out the others in the public mind at least. Not, naturally, in Tiger?s. At least, and at last, he appeared to apply most of his mind to this year?s rumble at The K Club in County Kildare, and while it is tempting, indeed often vital, to begin every journey at the start ? which in this case would be Augusta National ? we will follow the Irish lead and start this one at The End.
Two years ago Bernhard Langer expertly led a European raiding party into Detroit where his lads routed the Americans by a record score. Only the most wildly optimistic among us thought we might see a repeat in our lifetimes but this tiny minority turned out to be spot on as Ian Woosnam?s side crushed Tom Lehman?s puzzled posse by the same nine-point margin.
Woosnam had come into this match on the sharp end of some very personal criticism and most of this stuff came out of Thomas Björn?s mouth. The big Dane can be a seriously impressive golfer but he also can be awfully daft occasionally. Well, he has never been more ill advised, than the moment he decided to mark his omission as a captain?s pick by attacking the Welshman?s credentials as a leader. I spoke at length to Ian 48 hours after this hurtful tirade had been uttered and then published around the world and there is no doubt that the skipper was wounded.
His instinct was to deny this but everything else about him screamed a different story. In the end of course he had the biggest, most deserved, last laugh of the year while a chastened Björn paid a hefty fine and sincerely apologised. He must, however, be as alarmed as the rest of us that he does this sort of thing from time to time and his rude recklessness may now ultimately cost him a previously significant chance of being captain himself one day.
While the fine detail of this match is now a matter of record the bit that bears repetition is both the organisation of the event and the reaction of the crowd to the week. On both counts everyone involved is to be congratulated.
Trumpeted as Ireland?s biggest ever sporting event, the Ryder Cup mostly lived up to the hype, even if it fell at least slightly short of Woosie?s immediate assessment that it had been ?the greatest week in history?.
Ian, of course, may be forgiven this over-egging of an already inflated pudding if only because he had just happily performed the first nasal champagne wash to be seen in public. With a bit of luck we will never see its like again.
Despite lousy weather the organisers kept the wheels turning and the punters who turned up in their many thousands offered an atmosphere that satisfied everyone, even Tiger who said they were the best for whom he had ever performed.
As I left The K Club under cover of darkness late on Sunday evening, the nice bloke whose job it had been all week to shine a torch and so assist departing hacks avoid a dodgy slip on the mud, said, ?Safe home now. Thanks for coming to see us.? The pleasure, I told him, had been all ours. Thanks Ireland.
THE RIGHT SPIRIT
And it was only after I left that the good news seeped out that for the first time in a long time the two teams enjoyed each other?s company that evening. Including Tiger, who, I am reliably informed, emerged the next morning looking the blunt side of jaded. Credit too to Tom Lehman who injected some real style into defeat and for his order that any European who wished to enter the US team room that Sunday evening had to be prepared to sing a song.
Less reliable is the rumour that the reverse trip was only authorised if the Americans first kissed Woosie?s backside. Or, if they preferred, Monty?s. We may, I?m afraid, only wish this to be true. Yet while applauding a return to something closer to the old tussle?s proper spirit, what we must also wish for is that the Americans offer more of an actual contest at Valhalla in 2008.
Yes, it is fun to beat them but it is even more fun when the drama comes down to the last couple of singles matches. It was this uncertainty that turned the Ryder Cup into the huge event it now is and it is a return to this sort of theatre that is now hugely desirable.
Certainly there appears to be validity in Scott Verplank?s comments that he suspects the main reason he and his mates lost so heavily was because not everyone on the US side generated sufficient passion for the contest.
The Ryder Cup is about passion and, indeed, about having fun. Europe enjoy these qualities, the Americans do not. It is high time they did. They used to.
Whatever, let us now move back to Augusta and the US Masters. Mickelson?s victory in Georgia this year seemed to prove beyond any sensible debate that the great escape
artist had indeed broken free of his own shackles and his desire to wallop away at everything that ever stood in his way. Here in the heartland of the game?s most cerebral player, Bobby Jones, Phil displayed the ability to formulate and then execute a cunning plan.
His decision to use two drivers ? one to fade the ball, the other to draw it ? may have irritated those of us who still cling warmly to the memory of genuine shotmakers but it was at least intelligent. Better still, it worked, and the reigning USPGA champion became the reigning Masters champ. At last, we thought, Woods has a rival who has unlocked the key to the Clever Room. Let the games commence.
“Mickelson?s victory in Georgia this year seemed to prove beyond any sensible debate that he had broken free of his own shackles and desire to wallop away at everything”
Instead, however, Mickelson throttled his, and some of our, hopes at the very next Major. The manner in which he threw away the US Open in June after slicing into the corporate hospitality area was alarmingly pathetic from such a gifted golfer. It was also sad. Going for broke is one thing but hoping for a minor miracle is quite another. The fact is that Mickelson has yet to recover from this strange episode. The man who has turned up since that Sunday in New York has been a bloke in turmoil. That may just have been the end for Phil Mickelson and the really, really damaging thing is that he is astute enough to realise this. We shall see.
Perversely, Monty has emerged relatively unscathed by his own horrid moment in the same US Open. He now knows that all he had to do was to thump a 7-iron on to a green and get down in two putts and he would have won.
He, more or less, knew this to be a fact at the time. Instead, he hit the worst shot of his illustrious career. A weaker man would still be carrying the damage but Montgomerie seems to have recovered. Maybe, unlike Mickelson, he has long since come to the same conclusion as the rest of us that no matter what he does he is destined never to win the Major trophy his talent by now should have caressed.
Tiger, meanwhile, missed his first cut in a Major, a Winged Foot slip that followed a nine-week break while he mourned the death of his dad who was, in my experience, a nice and decent man.
This turned out to be the slightest of blips. His victory at a wonderful Open Championship at Royal Liverpool was the most dominant I have witnessed and his golf since has been truly outstanding and, of course, includes victory at the USPGA.
To be frank, I no longer know quite what to say about this player except that he can only improve if he spits less and smiles more. Oh, and it might be an idea to make him playing captain of the next Ryder Cup team. If anyone can do this job then he is your man.
Which brings us back to Ireland and the Ryder Cup. It is to Tiger?s credit that he played a pivotal role in persuading Darren Clarke to make himself available for The K Club, just as it is worth noting that Woosnam had the wit to then pick him and to add the Ulsterman?s pal Lee Westwood to the mix. Everyone comes out of this wonderfully well and I can think of no game better suited than golf to facilitating the whole thing.
“Trumpeted as Ireland?s biggest sports event the Cup lived up to the hype”
After a year during which many of our more relevant games went into reverse, or at least failed dismally to live up to high expectations, a year when the head-butt and the dive, the bung and the drug injection made those of us who pay serious attention to all this triviality feel at least a bit embarrassed, Clarke?s performance shone brightly.
Not just the enthusiastic execution of his role in Ireland but the manner in which he conducted himself during the long and wearily frightful months before. Darren is not the first man to lose a wife prematurely to breast cancer and he will clearly not be the last either but if there ever was a template for high and dignified grace under the most hideous pressure then he and Heather have laid it out before us.
I was going to add that, by comparison, golf really is only a game but then so too in many ways is life itself. In each case it is how you play it that ultimately counts. Judged by this yardstick, both games were lucky to have Darren Clarke as a player in 2006.