Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Not Borne of Anti-Americanism

I spent a happy weekend thoroughly enthralled by the Ryder Cup. The standard of golf was terrific; the crowd was genuinely electrifying, and it was a sporting occasion that was carried out in the best of sportsmanship. Of course, part of the excitement of the Ryder Cup is that it is more or less the only event in golf where partisanship plays a leading role; you are following a corporate entity, not a favourite player or two. It is held infrequently enough that the novelties of teams and matchplay add to the sense of occasion. This sense of occasion leads to truly memorable sporting contests - when was the last forgettable Ryder Cup?

Simon Barnes suggested in yesterday's Times that the passion for the Ryder Cup is inspired in Europe out of hatred for America:

Nor is the alliance about Latvians, Greeks, Dutch and Belgians. It’s not about who we are, it’s about who they are. And if, thank God, much of the poisonousness that attended the event in 1991 and 1999 has been washed away, the essence of the rivalry is simplicity itself: that the Americans need taking down a peg.

In so doing, he demonstrated a lack of understanding for the politics of golf, and, indeed, the politics of life.

In golf, there is a genuine corporate European identity. The top golfers on the continent, by and large, compete on the European Tour. Now, this identity is strengthened by anti-Americanism, but with good reason. The world ranking system, for example, for many years had been skewed towards American players. In a vicious circle, PGA Tour victories were given the highest points, and as these were largely contested by an American field, it was the US who rose to the top of the rankings. Then, when rankings were determined by the strength of field, it was the American events, with the American players, that reinforced the superiority through the system. This is not to say America did not, or does not have the best players in the world. It did, and it does today - Woods, Mickleson and Furyk are rightly ranked 1,2,3 in the world. And now there is some balance; there are four Europeans ranked ahead of the next American.

But there was always a superiority complex about the PGA Tour; the same sort of arrogance that allows the winners of a domestic competition to style themselves "world champions". Europeans were inferior to the US; they had to have their own competition because they couldn't compete. It was golfing politics that lay behind the intensity of feeling in the Ryder Cup through the 80s and 90s. Some inequities still exist - the Masters, for example, disproportionately invites US players. But changes have happened. Now that more Europeans are competing in America, more Brits are serving their golfing apprenticeship in US universities, and now that the ranking system is more equitable, the strength of feeling doesn't exist so much. Yet the meaning that was given to the tournament in the last decade still lingers on.

What Barnes also forgets, though, is that no identity on the earth is defined solely positively. He may not feel European, but there are very strong reasons why Europe's best golfers would - at least in golfing terms. And there's a very good reason why the Ryder Cup didn't expand to include Africa and Asia. There's already a tournament between USA and the Rest of the World (in a non-European sense). The lack of any unifying feeling of the Rest of the World team makes it devoid for meaning; it's a made-for-TV spectacle that doesn't have anywhere near the emotion of the Ryder Cup. Why? Because even in a very loose way, people can identify with the idea of Europe. Expanding it any wider doesn't work.

But the ties that bind us to any identity are partially positive, partially negative. Members of the Labour Party demonstrated today that they are motivated as much by hatred of the Conservatives as they are by belief in their own party. Why do we club together? A large part of it is because we want to identify ourselves as separate from something normal or something we dislike. It's why the Liberal Democrats' attempts to claim to be positive in politics always ring hollow, and they end up with moves like the Great Repeal Act - supporting one agenda is always motivated by rejection of another.

It's the same with the Ryder Cup. There are good reasons to want to knock the Americans down a peg or two - their control of much of the game's money and a majority of the game's majors, for starters. The fact that it's a great chance to demonstrate some superiority where it counts, out on the course. But it wouldn't mean anything like what it does if there wasn't a European identity to go with it. Sure, it's informed by rivalry, and a sense of the other. But it's also formed by a sense of togetherness. You can't create a team spirit that is as successful as Europe's without a common bond that extends beyond the negative.