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Morrissey: Ryder Cup gives golfers chance to be part of something bigger than them

Bernhard Langer reacts after missing putt thenabled United States beEurope 1991 Ryder Cup. | AP

Bernhard Langer reacts after missing a putt that enabled the United States to beat Europe in the 1991 Ryder Cup. | AP

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:30AM

There’s nothing like being part of a team, and the ultimate
proof is in the way
multimillionaires playing a thoroughly individual sport fight and claw to make the Ryder Cup squads, then feel the weight of the world to perform well for their
newfound teammates.

A golfer on the PGA Tour can try to make himself think he’s part of a team that includes his caddie, his agent, his swing coach and his aromatherapist, but he knows better. When he looks at the leaderboard on Sunday, it doesn’t say Team McIlroy or Team Woods. Lots of people might have had a hand in his success, but he’s playing for himself. If he misses a birdie putt that would have won him a tournament, he’s not obsessing about those he let down.

But have him stand over the same putt to win the Ryder Cup for his team, and he’ll need a calculator to add up all the people counting on him.

The concept of working toward something that’s bigger than you (and beating the hell out of the competition) will be on display this week at Medinah Country Club. The Ryder Cup is about country (if you’re on the U.S. team) and continent (if you’re part of the European team).

But boiled down to its basic element, it’s about something as simple as working together for a common goal.

Golfers aren’t at all used to that dynamic, and it might be why they feel so much pressure during the Ryder Cup. NFL players feel stress, too, but they always have felt the security blanket of having teammates. For three days this week, we’ll watch an individual sport morph into a team sport. The pressure will shift from ‘‘I really need this putt’’ to ‘‘Please, Lord, don’t let me fail my teammates.’’ The golfers need a crash course in dealing with a completely different way of looking at themselves and their sport. Some can handle it, some can’t.

The pressure has heft to it.

‘‘I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t swallow,’’ U.S. golfer Hale Irwin said after blowing a lead on the last day of the 1991 Ryder Cup. ‘‘The sphincter factor was high.’’

Does it matter if our filthy-rich golfers beat their filthy-rich golfers? No, it doesn’t. But the viewing public will watch the Ryder Cup with a fascination normally seen only in children watching soap bubbles. The competition tugs at our desire to be patriotic. In this ugly era of political partisanship, it allows us to come together and agree on something involving our country. See? We want to be on a team, too. The irony is that you’ll not find a more conservative, corporate, 1 percent group than professional golfers.

I think we all can agree that men in golf apparel running around a course and carrying a U.S. flag in celebration look silly, like wing-tipped salesmen doing chest bumps after landing a new account. But if our golfers locate their patriotism for three days, it’s acceptable. After spending three weeks in London for the Olympics, I can report that nobody waves a flag more vigorously than the Brits.

But there are limits to this team-inspired feeling of oneness.

We don’t need U.S. golfers showing up in camouflage golf caps in homage to soldiers fighting abroad. Let’s not trivialize war. Let’s not confuse golf balls with mortar shells.

While we’re on the subject of comportment, we don’t need hecklers wearing down the Europeans at Medinah, either. Colin Montgomerie always looks like he’s on a diet of sour milk and tainted sushi, but there was no cause for golf fans to abuse him and his wife at the 1999 Ryder Cup in Brookline, Mass. We’re better than that.

OK, enough with the conduct guidelines.

In the Olympics, athletes are distantly part of a team. Not so with the Ryder Cup. Phil Mickelson might win a match, but if the United States loses, nobody pays much attention to his individual achievement. But if Mickelson loses a match that gives the Europeans the title, he’s the man who lost the Ryder Cup for his team. Golf fans remember that Bernhard Langer’s missed putt on the last hole of the last match gave the U.S. team the victory in 1991.

It’s one thing to let yourself down; it’s another to let your teammates down. And letting down Europe or the United States? Nobody wants to be that guy. But everybody is starving for the chance to be on the team.

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