Is the Ryder Cup Irrelevant?

Arnold Palmer spoke for many when he made the following comments about the Ryder Cup, a golf competition between U.S. and European teams (of various configurations) held since 1927:

It was vitally important to make the players realize that they were representing their country. Some of them thought they should be paid to play in the Ryder Cup, but I thought that was very distasteful, especially for an event that took place on the international stage. The important thing was maintaining good relations between the countries. I feel that the Ryder Cup itself is very special and I have always had a great deal of pride that I was representing my country and that to me was probably the most important thing you could do. That's why during my time as Captain I made a point of making sure my players were riled up with this same feeling.

In one sense, Mr. Palmer is on the side of the angels. Representing one’s country in an international sporting event such as the Ryder Cup should indeed be a source of great personal and national pride – and is, if victory celebrations are any indication, e.g., what transpired this past weekend in Scotland after Europe won. Given the circumstances, those who qualify to compete against players from other countries should indeed forego personal gain – they hardly need the money. Finally, international sporting events are indeed worthwhile as a way of helping to promote good relations between countries.

The issue, however, is not whether the Ryder Cup has succeeded in accomplishing the goals Mr. Palmer outlined – we can grant that it has – but whether it is any longer necessary or, well, competitive. Why might it not be? Because the year 2016, when Ryder Cup matches will be held next (in Minnesota), will mark the return of golf to the Olympics, absent since 1904. Surely, as international sports competitions go, it doesn’t get any bigger than the Olympics. The Jules Rimet Cup (soccer) is second in importance, but it is not a close second (except maybe in the opinion of soccer fans). When it comes to competing for the sake of national pride, the Ryder Cup pales by comparison. Seven countries were represented in 2014: The U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Denmark and Sweden. To grasp the difference, recall the opening ceremonies at the Olympics.    

How did golf make it back into the Olympics? Answer: By vote. The International Olympic Committee met in 2009 and voted to add golf to the Summer Games, citing obvious facts: Golf has been rapidly expanding and has become popular throughout the world. Professional golf tours now exist in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Countries such as Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and South Africa have their own pro tours. The U.S. PGA Tour is by far the richest, which is why so many professionals aspire to join it. Side note: Of the 12 European Tour golfers who competed in the Ryder Cup this year, seven own residences in the U.S., including the current British Open and PGA winner Rory McIlroy (Florida) and the current U.S. Open and Tour Championship winner Martin Kaymer (Arizona). 

Golf at the Olympics would not have happened without support from senior golf executives and prominent tour players. At the forefront were: Ty Votaw, Executive Vice President of Communications and International Affairs and Vice President of the International Golf Federation (IGF); Peter Dawson, president of the IGF and chief executive of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club; Pádraig Harrington of Ireland; Michelle Wie of the United States; Suzann Pettersen of Norway; and 2009 British Amateur champion Matteo Manassero of Italy. Jack Nicklaus was a supporter as well.

Brazil will host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Matches will be played on a new golf course to be built in the Reserva de Marapendi in the Barra da Tijuca zone. Matches are provisionally scheduled for August 6–9 and 12–15. Players will qualify based on world rankings as of 11 July 2016. There will be a limit of four golfers per country that can qualify this way, including the United States. Other details will follow.

We can be certain that players around the world will be highly motivated to be the first winners of an Olympic medal in golf since 1904 – gold, silver or bronze. With Olympic success highly likely, what will be the point of the Ryder Cup as an international golf venue? Perhaps Arnold Palmer can be persuaded to answer.

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