Prior to the 2016 Ryder Cup, Peter Willett, brother of Masters winner and European Team member Danny Willett, penned an opinion piece for the National Club Golfer magazine, where he had some choice words to say about the American fans who would be attending the event in Minnesota. “A baying mob of imbeciles.” “Pudgy, basement-dwelling irritants.” “Fat, stupid, greedy and classless.” It was insults such as these that set the tone for what was to be one of the ugliest Ryder Cups in recent memory, where onlookers watched on in dismay at an event that quickly became more about the put-downs than it did the putting.
For many, the Ryder Cup is one of the only golfing events that they will watch. Much like Wimbledon with Tennis and the Ashes with Cricket, it is seen by many in this country as the sport’s flagship competition. With this reputation comes a great deal of pressure, especially in regards to how both the event and those competing in it come across to the wider audience watching.
In the case of the Ryder Cup, the appeal for many is the camaraderie and teamwork that is so engrained in the competition’s DNA. Accustomed as we are to seeing golfers playing solo, there is something different about seeing a squad come together, harnessing their team spirit to play for something that is bigger than just themselves. Buying into this ideal has meant that great team performances, such as Europe’s Miracle of Medinah in 2012, where they overcame seemingly impossible odds to win, have made certain victories even more thrilling and awe-inspiring.
Although a desire to win has always been undeniably present in the event, recent years have seen a real emphasis placed on a desire to win with dignity and pride. Perhaps that is why the general demeanour of both the spectators and players seemed to be so surprising to many viewers when the teams took to the tees this year.
Willett’s words had already stoked the flames, but no one was quite ready for the truly hostile experience that was awaiting the European players. Some of the heckling was so bad that Rory McIlroy had to actually ask for one fan to be ejected due to the abuse he was receiving while on the course. This obviously isn’t to say that the European fans weren’t giving some back as well; with many pundits agreeing that alcohol was probably the largest factor behind the disruption and that both sets of troublesome fans were in the minority.
Yet even though it was only a minority, it was a very loud and visual minority who over three days of golfing action probably commanded more press attention than a lot of what was taking place on the course. For many, the abiding memory of the 2016 Ryder Cup will be its hostility and poor sportsmanship, which echoed the clashes of the mid-eighties and early nineties that had seen governing bodies intervene to calm down fan and player behaviour. For the organisers, it was not the pinnacle of the sport that it aims to be but was instead a PR disaster from start to finish.
So can the Ryder Cup recover? After Hazeltine, Rory McIlroy assured the public that Paris 2018 would be a much more subdued affair, but will casual golf fans still want to tune in after what they saw at Hazeltine? Will parents want their children watching some of the worst forms of gamesmanship that we saw present in Minnesota? Passion and exuberance are what ardent Golf fans will want to see, but will those whose only exposure to the sport is this particular event want to sit through all the antagonism?
The Ryder Cup remains financially one of the most important events on the Golf calendar, raking in millions of pounds for its organisers through broadcasting and sponsorship. However, if 2016’s performance is repeated in two years time, questions will need to be asked about how to clamp down on certain behaviours that could prove to be detrimental to the event’s universal appeal.