I don’t wish to make any of you feel old, or some of you feel young, but my earliest golfing memory has since become known as the ‘Battle of Brookline’, the electric Ryder Cup of 1999. I was nine at the time but in truth, it was a miracle I got to watch it at all.
Mam had an old box television in her bedroom with a pair of bunny ears for aerials long enough to probe about in space. We could boast 100 channels, RTE 1, Network 2, TG4 and 97 different shades of snow screen. My brother and I would spend hours trawling through picture after picture of grey fuzz, the flickering sometimes forming silhouettes, heightening our hope that an image would appear.
Occasionally they did, a colourful foreign game show, men and women wrestling naked and sometimes even sport. On Sunday September 26th 1999, after an hour of graft, minutely adjusting the angles of the aerial and lamping the side of the TV with calculated slaps, we tuned into the Holy Grail – the greatest team event in all of golf – possibly even sport.
The whole family was so excited, huddled on the threadbare carpet praying to Jesus, Mary and Holy St. Joseph that the broadcaster wouldn’t realise we were watching free of charge. Mam even lit a candle, taking breaks between Novenas to put the kettle on and ration the Rich Tea biscuits.
Team Europe entered that Sunday with a four-point lead, looking to win an unprecedented third gold cup in a row but Ben Crenshaw’s side was packed with talent and nothing was guaranteed.
“I’m a big believer in faith,” said the USA Captain on the eve of the singles, pointing his finger defiantly. “I’ve got a good feeling about this.”
Sure enough, the likes of Hal Sutton, Davis Love III, David Duval and Tiger Woods stormed out the gate as a sea of red washed over our 14-inch transmitter.
“Momentum,” Dad said, “they have it now,” as the Americans clinched the top six matches to turn the tie on its head.
Steve Pate’s 2&1 win over Miguel Angel Jimenez made it an unthinkable 13-10 to Team USA before Padraig Harrington provided brief respite for Europe with their first point after a typically dogged 1UP display over Mark O’Meara.
Paul Lawrie added another scalp for Europe, now 12-13, before Jim Furyk dismantled Sergio Garcia 4&3 to fire the Americans within a half point of victory.
I still held out hope that we could retain the Cup.
The two matches left on the course saw Colin Montgomerie edging the only likable American golfer I knew at the time, Payne Stewart, while Jose Maria Olazábal duelled it out with Justin Leonard. And then, at nine years old, my world fell apart.
Before that day I thought I knew what it meant to hate. After David James flapped half-clear a David Beckham corner to the waiting Eric Cantona whose improbable volley somehow avoided the whole Liverpool team to win the FA Cup in ’96 for United, I was sure I’d reached peak animosity. Then Justin Leonard in his stupid uniform holed a putt from some 50 feet on 17 and the yanks lost their minds.
The main protagonist, Leonard threw his arms in the air and went running around the green, whooping and hollering as a stampede of supporters followed in the circus. Teammates, caddies, wives, girlfriends and photographers flooded the putting surface like the US had just won the War of Independence and a symphony of screams from the frenzied fans delirious beyond the ropes morphed into one muffled sound as we sat at home in silence.
Then the image shifted to a frustrated Olazábal waiting for the coast to clear as he assessed his birdie putt – his line since massacred by the heavy heeled Americans void of any semblance of etiquette or sportsmanship.
“Bunch of %$&*ing horrible b%%$£*&s, he still has a putt. Dad, he still has a %$^%ing putt for a half? What a shower of £$£&s. This is a disgrace. A %$%%ing disgrace!”
My parents’ jaws dropped to the floor as I revealed my extended vocabulary, my brother Billy, 9 years my senior, overcome with regret having let me watch the first season of The Sopranos which came out earlier that year.
Alas, by the time I was castigated and the melee on screen quietened, the Spaniard missed his birdie for the half and Team USA captured an unsavoury victory. I thought I’d never watch golf again, not just because I was banned by Mam and Dad but because I’d flung the TV out the window. Mercifully, over time I matured.
They say there’s more to be learned in defeat than there is in victory and reflecting on that Sunday strop in calmer waters since, I can honestly say it’s true.
The ‘Battle of Brookline’ taught me that there’s little I hate more than a US golf fan with their tails up. That the god-awful creations that are Team USA uniforms accurately symbolise the way I view their supporters and that there’s nothing quite like the Ryder Cup.
Of course, without that brash, drum-beating bravado of the American fans, the magic of the Cup would be lost, so I guess I don’t hate the yanks. I love to hate them and because of that I can’t live without them. Take the bipartisan crowd out of a Ryder Cup match and you no longer have a Ryder Cup.
For me, Whistling Straits can’t happen in September without its most important players, the fans.