There are plenty of reasons to suspect the Ryder Cup this year will be one of the most intense in history, if not downright acrimonious. The acrimony could result from the combination of runaway nationalism and crowds who respond to matches in ways that go beyond a reasonable level of support for their teams. The Ryder Cup could mutate into the Rowdy Cup.
The choices that the U.S. and European captains have been making are designed to ramp up the emotion. The term "fever pitch" could prove mild. There's nothing wrong with this. It should only make the Ryder Cup, which the Europeans have won six of the past eight times, that much more gripping.
U.S. captain Davis Love III has had the course set up with very little rough. He craves a birdie-fest, or at least opportunities for them. He doesn't want long hitters to be penalized if they miss fairways. That happened during the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills in Birmingham, Mich., when the Europeans humiliated the U.S. side to win by nine points. The U.S. supporters fell silent under the circumstances. Their silence was not golden.
The noise around the Medinah Country Club outside Chicago will only increase and could move into bedlam because the players will be going for everything. It's not much of a stretch to conjure a scenario in which spectators get so energized they lose control. It's not much of a stretch to conjure a scenario in which spectators might enjoy a few beers too many, and lose the inhibitions that golf crowds normally have.
The Ryder Cup is not a normal event. It's all about the crowd getting into it, about players' wives getting into it, about the United States facing off against a continent. Flags fly. Who can forget the way the U.S. team, their wives and their captain Ben Crenshaw exploded and ran on the 17 th green during the Sunday singles at the 1999 Ryder Cup when Justin Leonard holed a critical long birdie putt against Jose Maria Olazabal, this year's European captain? Olazabal still had a putt to match Leonard.
The more inflamed the situation, the more likely it is that the spectators and players themselves might go too far. The Europeans are bound to be feeling hyped up just by looking at their golf bags, where they will see the silhouette of the late and great Seve Ballesteros, a Ryder Cup master. Olazabal and Ballesteros comprised a formidable Ryder Cup pair in matches. Olazabal has the silhouette on the bags to motivate his team. Emotions will be high.
When the Sunday singles come along, the emotions are likely to be so high that the Medinah crowd will be more like that of a Bears, Cubs, White Sox, Bulls or Blackhawks game. Chicago is a tremendous sports city.
Meanwhile, the expectation is that the Euros will wear blue, because Ballesteros always wore blue on Sunday. The expectation is also that the U.S. team will wear red. A fellow named Tiger Woods always wears a red shirt on Sunday. It hasn't hurt him. The PGA of America is also encouraging spectators on Sunday to wear red. Officials are terming this the "Red Out" movement.
As for Chicago fans themselves, Jim Furyk said, "I know they are loud. I know they are boisterous."
Europe's Graeme McDowell said early in his Tuesday press conference, "You know, the days of hostility, I think, are gone." Later, after answering more questions, he revised his view. "I think, well, I say that, but we'll see."
Love has called for decorum and anticipates a "fun" event. As for Woods, he also used the word "fun" repeatedly to refer to the atmosphere he expects, but added: "It will be loud. It will be raucous."
Crowds at Medinah have proven themselves raucous before. In the last round of the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah, Mike Weir and Woods were tied for the lead and played together in the last twosome. Weir got off to a bad start and soon the spectators, many in their cups, were mocking him. They were running ahead before he finished putting. It was not pretty. Woods won, while Weir shot 80 to tie for 10 th place.
Europe's Justin Rose said something Tuesday that seems just about right.
"You have to expect the unexpected this week on all levels," Rose said.
The unexpected this week could be unseemly.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein