- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

SUTTON COLDFIELD, England The big build-up became, for some people at least, the big let-down. The American team wives did not come out for the opening ceremony in the miniskirts and high boots that had been widely rumored and anticipated. They didn't even emblazon the stars and stripes on their skirts or blouses or jerseys as they had done in previous Ryder Cups.

Instead, the ladies wore elegantly tailored and highly modest outfits, devoid of jingoistic haute couture.

It was all part of a new spirit of decorum and dignity that organizers and team captains and it seems spouses are determined to infuse into what has become an emotion-spilling and at times raucously partisan event over the past few years. Things have changed, partly because both sides recognized that sportsmanship was disappearing to the detriment of the event.

But the key reason for change is also the reason the players are here today and not a year ago: September 11.

"We all know now that golf just isn't the most important thing in the world," Sergio Garcia said. "And we also need to show how Europeans and Americans share common values of decency."

The opening ceremony, reflecting that mood, was full of trans-Atlantic camaraderie and simplicity rather than razzmatazz. After a silent tribute to September 11 dead, the Europeans stood as each American player was introduced by captain Curtis Strange and the U.S. team returned the compliment.

"We'll play hard, we'll play with civility," Strange said in a short speech. He was stuttering at times, either through emotion or nerves, with one touch of humor: He asked if the solidarity message after September 11 "We are all Americans now" could still apply for the next three days.

"We'll show the world why this is the greatest game. Let's make Samuel Ryder proud." (The competition was dreamt up in 1927 by Ryder, a millionaire seed salesman, avowedly to promote friendship between two great golf-playing nations, the United States and Great Britain.)

Europe's captain, Sam Torrance, who despite his chain-smoking, devil-may-care approach, managed to hole out to win the Ryder Cup for his continent in 1985, struck a similarly sober note.

"I pledge that I and the team will maintain all the ideals and traditions of the Ryder Cup and the game which we all serve. It's only nationalities which divide us."

Typical of the new sporting spirit, he turned to the American team and said: "Good luck, boys and let the best team win."

Torrance was not quite so magnanimous after Europe narrowly lost the Cup in Brookline, Mass., three years ago. He described the U.S. team's conduct on that occasion as the most disgusting thing he had seen on a golf course.

The Americans stampeded across the 17th green when Justin Leonard holed a 45-foot putt against Jose Maria Olazabal, who then had to putt on the heavily trampled turf and missed. Also, for the second time running when the event was held in America, catcalls and abuse were hurled at some of the European players, notably Colin Montgomerie.

You can be pretty sure that won't happen here this time, though had September 11 not occurred last year there may have been European spectators baying for revenge and performing tit-for-tat.

Trouble-makers, if any, will get short shrift from a plethora of security personnel. And in case any terrorists have designs on attacking in another spectacular show of contempt for American values, British security forces have been deployed. As the teams were led out by a bagpipe band, a lone police marksman bearing a submachine gun marched in front of the grandstand in a bulky bulletproof outfit. Many of his colleagues were more discreetly placed at the course perimeters.

Another way of emphasizing the need for decency to prevail is a greater emphasis on the event's traditions and early ideals. The crowd was treated to a video history of the Ryder Cup on a huge screen.

Past British and European Ryder Cup heroes (Europeans only joined the Brits in recent years) were introduced to the crowd, with the glaring exception of Seve Ballesteros, who decided to stay home in Spain. The band performed the American national anthem and the six anthems of the nations represented in the European team. All were, of course, received respectfully by the crowd.

Whether the decorum and friendly spirit survive the dramas of the next three days remains to be seen.

There has been some gamesmanship afoot. British talk show hosts and much of the popular media here have found a bone of contention to toss in front of the top dog.

Tiger Woods already has had to be defended for reportedly saying there were "a million reasons" why his previous week's win was more valuable than the Ryder Cup (he pocketed a cool million greenbacks in Ireland for four days' work and 25 under par). It was just politeness to that tournament's sponsors, it was later explained. Then came reports that Woods and Phil Mickelson were hardly on speaking terms.

Now a news mountain is being made of another molehill. Woods decided to play his practice holes yesterday early in the morning so that the spectators, who paid to come in at 9 a.m., could only see the world's greatest golfer doing a cool-down.

"It's outrageous," complained the host on the national radio network "Talk Sport." "Woods robbed the public of their money. He should have played at 9 a.m. like all the others in his team. He clearly doesn't care about his team or the spectators."

But the British golf-lovers who called in disagreed, arguing that Woods is entitled to practice exactly as he always does before a major event early.

"We want to beat him, but when he loses we want him to be playing his very best," one caller said. Others said he was in fact being considerate, letting his later-teeing fellow players grab some limelight.

When it was announced that Woods would be the first American to tee off today, there was a huge roar. The fact is, the British would far rather watch him, win or lose, than any of their own. Even when he's just practicing.

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