I can’t quite make my mind up about golf. I’m sure it’s partly because I’m not very good… not too shabby with a 7-iron or a putter, absolutely abysmal with a driver. I’m vaguely hoping that once I’m at a stage of my life where breaking into a run is less appealing, I might get really good at it. I enjoy going to the driving range, but I think golf clubs tend to be pretty snooty. I quite like watching the majors on TV when they’ve reached the exciting stages, but other than that… meh. But the Ryder Cup. That’s different. The Ryder Cup has a bit of magic.
We talk about fans worshipping sporting gods, but without trying to draw a comparison that’s too sweeping, maybe there’s another parallel between sport and religion: there seems to be an extraordinary power created by the feeling of being part of something much greater than yourself. I’m not in the least bit religious, but I can appreciate the significance of the sense of community and a shared value system that religion creates for many people.
In a sports context, anyone who plays in a team sport can probably already identify with similar feelings to an extent, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sportspeople who often compete on an individual basis can often bring out the best in themselves when they are representing a team, country or continent. Andy Murray is Britain’s Davis Cup saviour, Team GB’s Olympic athletes are driven to success as part of something bigger, and the cycling domestique commits repeated acts of self-sacrifice in order to help a team mate to glory.
Of course, an athlete has to truly buy into it if it is to make a difference to their performance. During Rio 2016, former GB sprinter Jeanette Kwakye wrote an interesting article about the changing mindset of the British Athletics relay teams, noting that in order to succeed, the GB women had recognized the need to, “Park their egos [and] personal ambitions and come together with one objective only.” I believe quite strongly that you can’t fake this: you might be part of the team, but is the team truly a part of you?
As example of this, and to bring us back to golf, some have criticized Tiger Woods for failing to truly commit to Team USA and subsequently never really performing at the Ryder Cup. Conversely, Justin Rose was one of only a few golfers openly passionate about being part of the Olympic Games (and in his case, Team GB), and his charge to a Rio 2016 gold medal subsequently seemed to have a feeling of slightly magical inevitability about it.
So is it possible to define the ingredient that makes an atmosphere become particularly special? Sometimes the size, importance or long-standing tradition of an event alone can create a special atmosphere, such as the final of a Grand Slam, the Ashes, the FA Cup final or the Super Bowl. I’d also argue that there are examples in lower level sport, because emotional meaning isn’t just created by the scale of an event. Having said that, more often than not, a crowd creates an atmosphere – and that’s why although there may be a gulf between the relative performance levels of competitors, the atmosphere at the Olympic 100m final and the London Marathon isn’t so very different.
Crowds use many kinds of marker as powerful indicators of allegiance. Patriotism and a sense of identity are indicated by coloured clothing, chanting, cheering, jeering and applause. Crowds vary across sports and between events – and it’s pretty easy to identify the differences between the polite applause of snooker, football stadium chanting and the pub-like atmosphere of darts. The traditions of a sport or competition tend to dictate the expected crowd behaviours, and this is where the Ryder Cup becomes an interesting example of an accepted – but disputed – challenge to the norm.
Many Ryder Cup commentators declare themselves to be opposed to overly vocal crowds and some of the players getting involved in (or in some cases, fuelling) the atmosphere. There are undoubtedly conversations to be had about the lengths spectators should be allowed to go – because there is of a course a fine but distinct line between ‘banter’ and abuse. However, my overriding feeling is that golf might just be on the verge of a big decision about the direction it wants to take as a sport. The Ryder Cup – and arguably the Olympics – have drawn some great performances from players who have already established themselves as great golfers, but there seems to be something extra in these atmospheres that has the power to create the special or spectacular. As well as considering different formats and how it can broaden its appeal from a sport-specific perspective, maybe top-level golf would do well to consider the emotional experience and attachment of the crowd too.
Challenging tradition can be dangerous ground, even when it seems obvious logically or even ethically that change is needed – just look at how difficult it can be to implement technology in football or contest antiquated rules about women’s golf club membership. Rightly or wrongly, there is also almost always opposition to change. Maybe it wouldn’t be sustainable for the Hazeltine atmosphere to be reproduced at every event across the golf calendar – for the players or the crowds. Tradition and etiquette can’t just be thrown out of the window either, because they are part of any sport’s identity. And most of all, perhaps the magic of the Ryder Cup lies partly in the fact that it’s unusual… because can something be as special if it becomes the norm?
N.B. It’s Women’s Sports Week. Please don’t think I’m writing about the Davis Cup and the Ryder Cup without due consideration to their equally worthy women’s equivalents. I have no doubt that the Fed Cup and Solheim Cup hold just as much meaning to the incredible sportswomen who play in them and supporters who watch them compete, and I hope that in the not too distant future the media and the world of sport itself makes it a bit easier to use them as widely known examples when I’m discussing topics like this one…