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Ryder Cup Musings

As we've all come to learn, participating in fantasy sports gives us a new perspective on the actual sports involved. Before the growth of Sabermetrics, few people outside clubhouses and general-manager's offices knew about the inner workings of baseball. Just a generation ago, if you mentioned the acronym OPS to even a rabid baseball fan, you'd probably get a blank stare in response. Fantasy sports give us the opportunity to see the game played under the surface, and a far greater understanding of why what happens on the field, happens.
This greater understanding comes with a price. It isn't the scorn we sometimes endure from those who don't play; that's just a difference of opinion. The real price is the tendency to demystify the sports we love. Fantasy sports can, if we get too wrapped up in the statistical components, destroy the sense of wonder we knew as kids as we watched extraordinary athletes do things that we then tried to replicate on sandlots, or on our own naturally frozen ponds. Because of the inflexibility of the scoring categories, they can cause us to lose sight of some of the little things that athletes do, simply because they don't show up in statistical categories. Moving a runner from second to third with a groundout to the right side is a perfect example; in fantasy sports, it's an out (and thus a detriment to your team batting average), while on the diamond, it's doing your job.
Every now and then, an event occurs that can, if you stop to enjoy it, restore that sense of wonder that depends not on statistics but on heart. In golf, that event recurs on a regular biennial schedule: It's called the Ryder Cup, a weekend where most fantasy leagues don't even operate. If you're in a Yahoo golf league, the Cup didn't even show up on your schedule, which ended last month with the Tour Championship. For fantasy purposes, it's as though the event didn't exist.
Fortunately, it did occur last weekend. If you watched, you got a treat that depended not on statistics (because they didn't count) and not on money winnings (because there wasn't any). You got to watch golf for the drama and even poetry it embodies; not for the statistics and money winnings it comprises. You got an event based on loyalty, and on sportsmanship, and on patriotism, and on team pride. No fantasy league has yet figured out how to measure those components, and I hope no one ever does.
The best parallel I know to this is the one college football game I never miss: Army/Navy, where I can respect each player on both teams as a man. No football factories here; each player will sacrifice his freedom, and some of them will sacrifice their lives, for our nation once school is over. A few years back, the broadcast of that game began with Brent Musberger saying this: "This game has no national-championship implications. There are no bowl bids at stake, and there are no Heisman Trophy candidates on either roster. This is much more important than all that."
A few years ago, the pre-pre-divorce Tiger Woods endured scorn when he described the Ryder Cup as "an exhibition." This year, when his inclusion on the team was, for the first time since the Clinton Administration, not assured, Tiger lobbied hard for the right to be included on the US team. Rory McIlroy evidently didn't learn from Tiger's verbal gaffe, because last year, he described the event in exactly the same terms. On Monday, once it was all done, the young Irishman changed his tune, calling it the greatest week of his life, and saying that the Cup was the greatest event, not only in golf, but in all of sports.
So what makes this so special? On most weeks in the golf season, some tour pro stands over a putt on the 18th green on Sunday and goes through his pre-stroke ritual. The amount of money at issue, depending on whether he makes or misses, is probably more than the value of your house. Still, he's a professional; he dispassionately analyzes the slope, the grain, and the firmness of the ground, lines up his putt, and calmly strokes the ball toward the hole.
In contrast, in the Ryder Cup, there's no money involved at all. You put that same tour pro out on 18 with the identical putt and the Cup at stake, and you know what you get? His palms sweat; his pulse races; he hyperventilates. His throat is dry, and he's not sure he can stand over the ball without swaying or falling over from the pressure. You think I'm exaggerating? Back in 1991, after Hale Irwin's memorable Cup-clinching 18-hole match against Bernhard Langer, he described the pressure in these memorable words: "I couldn't swallow; I couldn't breathe; the sphincter factor was unbelievable."
Now, that, my brethren and sistren, is a golf tournament.
Here are some reflections on the latest iteration of the greatest golf event of them all:
  • In normal golf tournaments, Ian Poulter is a highly-talented pro who's a decent bet to finish in the Top 15 in any given week. But put him in the Ryder Cup, and I'll back him against Ben Hogan's and Byron Nelson's better ball.
  • Unless you were a really dedicated golf fan, you probably didn't appreciate how good Luke Donald was before you saw him destroy the American side this weekend. He missed the cut in two of this year's four majors, and finished T-47 at Pebble Beach in June. His best major showing was a T-11 at St. Andrews (in Europe, naturally). The preliminary outlook is that he'll have a far more prominent year on the PGA Tour in 2011.
  • Steve Stricker did everything Corey Pavin could have asked. He put Tiger Woods in his golf bag and carried him in the early matches.  On Monday, he took on the Euros' best player and set him down, 2 and 1. Both he and Westwood are among the top five in the world rankings, but before Monday's opening match, you could have searched all of Wales without finding someone who thought Stricker was favored.
  • The most astonishing result of all on Monday for Pavin had to be Bubba Watson's blowout loss to the oldest man inside the ropes, Miguel Angel Jimenez. Bubba hits it 300-yards-plus. Jimenez . . . well, let's just say that he takes two shots to get it that far. Watson's length advantage should have been enormous; when your opponent is hitting 6-irons into the greens and you're holding a wedge, that difference should be decisive. Jimenez's shocking 4-and-3 win over a wild Watson gave Europe a key point that probably no one other than Jimenez, and maybe Colin Montgomerie, expected.
  • Woods and Phil Mickelson finally woke up on Monday and sledge-hammered their over-matched singles opponents. That was Phil's only point of the weekend; if he had managed to gain even another half a point somewhere, the Cup would be on the western side of the Atlantic by now. Tiger actually was 3-1, but without Stricker's help in the foursomes and four-balls, it would have been a lot bloodier.
  • Like Mickelson, Dustin Johnson finally chipped in a point with a thermonuclear bombing of Martin Kaymer on Monday, by which time it was a hair too late. If you really want some fantasy advice from this non-fantasy post, it's to expect great things from the ultra-long-hitting Johnson in 2011.
  • Hunter Mahan nearly broke down in tears in the post-match press conference on Monday; the shame of dubbing a chip like an 18-handicapper, with nothing less than the Cup on the line, weighed him down like a lavender sweater made of lead. Mickelson, to his great credit, stepped in, took the microphone, and absolved Mahan of individual blame, saying that an extra half-point in any of the matches would have made Mahan's outcome irrelevant. Mickelson was right. Mahan doesn't deserve the blame; he was just unlucky enough to be last.
  • Maybe it really is possible to be too young to know to be nervous. Rickie Fowler looked to be the most composed man on either team. Consider his astonishing halve of his match on Monday, when he finished birdie-birdie-birdie to claw his way back from three down with three to play. Montgomerie had already mentally filled out the deposit slip for that full point before Fowler shocked Edoardo Molinari with the dazzling finish, which included 15-footers on 17 and 18. We'll give you a few minutes to hunt down someone else who can do that under similar pressure.
  • Pundits will criticize Pavin, but that, in my humble view, is hogwash. Sure, some players melted down in crucial situations; but unless Pavin is carrying their bag, he isn't involved in those situations. The US team made a spirited charge from a seemingly impossible deficit, and as Mahan and Graeme McDowell stood on the 16th tee, it was eminently foreseeable that the US could purloin the Cup right back. Pavin's four captain's picks finished 6-3-5 (Mickelson, Johnson, and Watson, in contrast, were 3-9-0), and basically kept the team in the hunt.
  • Padraig Harrington, in contrast, let his captain down. While he finished 2-2-0, he would have been a lot worse if not for some very favorable partner draws, and Zach Johnson exposed him badly in their singles match.
One last point about the intensity of the matches. Let's assume that your long-time favorite baseball team is down by two runs in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the World Series. The bases are full and there are two outs; the home crowd is roaring in an almost unbearable din. From what location would you want to be enjoying this dramatic scene?
If you answered with any location other than, "The batter's box," then you're a passive sports fan. For any serious golfer, you'd want to be in Mahan's situation on the 17th tee Monday – two down with two to play, up against the reigning US Open champion, your teammates cheering you on, the Cup at stake in the last match of the weekend, the weight of the world on your shoulders, the butterflies in your stomach in full riot mode. In that situation, give me my 4-iron and get out of my way. Situations like this are why athletes compete in events like the Ryder Cup, with no money on the line. McIlroy was right – it's why this really is the greatest event of them all.