The US and Europe’s unique rivalry

by Joanne Miller

The Ryder Cup, a renowned golf tournament that pits the best golfers from Europe against those from the United States, has seen its fair share of controversies and heated rivalries throughout its history. From patriotic gestures to accusations of gamesmanship, these incidents have added fuel to the fire of the already intense competition between the two teams.

One such controversy took place during the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island in South Carolina. The tournament occurred shortly after the first Gulf War, and some members of the US team, including Corey Pavin and Steve Pate, wore camouflage-patterned hats with the words “Desert Storm” emblazoned on them. This patriotic gesture set the tone for the tournament, with passionate fans getting involved and heckles becoming nasty and loud.

Accusations of gamesmanship also soured the proceedings. Team USA’s decision to withdraw supposedly injured player Steve Pate caused tensions to rise with the European team. But it was Seve Ballesteros, the Spanish golfer, who became public enemy number one for the Americans. Ballesteros engaged in several rules spats with American golfer Paul Azinger, leading to Azinger calling him “the king of gamesmanship.” Ballesteros responded by accusing Azinger of lying about a rules issue, and famously described the American team as “11 nice guys – and Paul Azinger.”

The 1991 Ryder Cup, which became known as “the War on the Shore,” ended with a narrow victory for the Americans. The tension and hostility displayed during the tournament prompted the captains at the next event to work on toning down the atmosphere and reducing the hostility.

The 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, is remembered not only for the amazing comeback by the US team but also for the controversies that unfolded off the course. Europe took a 10-6 lead into the final day, but the raucous home crowd spurred the American team to win the first six matches in a row. Photographer David Cannon described the atmosphere towards the Europeans as “vitriolic.” The intensity of heckling became too much for Colin Montgomerie’s father, who stopped watching his son’s matches, and European teammate Mark James claimed a fan spat at his wife.

The climax of the tournament came when American golfer Justin Leonard holed out for a birdie from 40 feet, sparking pandemonium as American players, wives, and caddies flooded onto the green in celebration, even though the opposing team still had a chance to putt. The behavior of the American team and spectators led to widespread outrage in European media and was described by some as the most disgusting day in the history of professional golf.

This incident prompted a conscious effort to rein in passions at the next event. The 2002 Ryder Cup at The Belfry in Warwickshire, England, was a calmer affair, and Europe emerged as the victors.

Controversy also struck during the 2000 Solheim Cup at Loch Lomond, Scotland. Annika Sörenstam, a Swedish golfer, was left in tears after a dispute over playing out of turn. Sörenstam had chipped in for a birdie, leveling the match momentarily, but the American team challenged that it was their turn to play. After much discussion, Sörenstam was forced to retake her shot, unable to replicate her earlier success. Sörenstam expressed her disappointment in the lack of sportsmanship displayed by the American team.

Though the incident didn’t dampen Europe’s victory, it left a lasting impact on Sörenstam, who valued sportsmanship above all else in her career. She believed it was a sad reflection of the ugly side of the game when events like this took place.

Another rules controversy occurred during the 2015 Solheim Cup in Germany, but this time Team Europe played the role of villains. Alison Lee, a young American golfer, putted to within 18 inches of the hole and believed her opponents had conceded the putt. She picked up her ball, only for Suzann Pettersen of Team Europe to claim that the shot had not been conceded. Referees upheld the challenge, penalizing Lee and awarding the hole to Europe. The incident, known as “gimmegate,” sparked outrage among the American team and their captain, who criticized the lack of sportsmanship displayed by the European team.

Despite the controversial incident, the US team rallied in the afternoon matches to clinch a stunning victory. The incident served as motivation for the US team, proving that controversies and heated rivalries can fuel determination and resilience.

Throughout the history of the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup, these controversies have left lasting impressions on players and fans alike. They have contributed to the fierce and passionate nature of these competitions, making them some of the most exciting events in the world of golf. The rivalries and drama associated with these tournaments only serve to enhance the anticipation and generate intense excitement among golf enthusiasts worldwide.

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