Patriotism is always on the lookout for new sources of support. Consider the United States in the late twentieth century. From the Vietnam War to the space shuttle Challenger, there’s no war patriotism can’t adopt or rehabilitate, no traumatic event it can’t use and convert into a heroic narrative or mawkish monument or memorial. This creativity is its genius. Don’t underestimate it. It’s even gotten its affective hooks into the otherwise staid game of golf. No resistance has been offered; if anything, golf has welcomed this usurpation.
On Father’s Day the United States Golf Association conducted the 111th version of the United States Open. NBC opened its Sunday coverage with some patriotic hoopla: children reciting the pledge of allegiance. Thanks to NBC’s editing, both “under God” and “indivisible” were cut. The reaction on social media was fast and furious and NBC prostrated itself on air. “We began our coverage of this final round just about three hours ago, and when we did it was our intent to begin the coverage of this U.S. Open championship with a feature that captured the patriotism of our national championship being held in our nation’s capital for the third time. Regrettably, a portion of the Pledge of Allegiance that was in that feature was edited out. It was not done to upset anyone, and we’d like to apologize to those of you who were offended by it.”
Apparently someone forgot to inform NBC of its broadcast location: Bethesda, Maryland. The Washington D.C. border and the nation’s capital are several miles away. More importantly, what does patriotism have to do with an individual pursuit like golf, even when it’s the United States Open? The eventual winner, Rory McIlroy, treated victory as the individual accomplishment it represents, pleased to be in the company of other great athletes and previous winners such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, and Ben Hogan. It was all about “history and prestige” in the sport. McIlroy hails from Northern Ireland, but the national flag someone offered him shortly after he won did not interest him and he declined to wrap it around himself as he walked off the course.
NBC’s U.S. Open effort to affix patriotism to golf followed its coverage of last year’s Ryder Cup, a golf competition between teams from the United States and Europe. Despite boasting the best professionals and the most competitive weekly tour, the United States has won only four of the last thirteen competitions. This generates great biannual concern in golfing and sporting circles in the United States. The game may not have been invented here, but the United States has made golf its own sporting property.
The huge popularity of the Ryder Cup (one of the world’s most watched athletic events) represents not just a remarkable sporting and media reversal but a downright triumph. Starting in the mid-nineteen twenties, the United Sates and Great Britain staged the biannual competition for fifty years and no one really noticed. The United States won each contest, usually handily, save one, 1969, which was deemed an aberration, even an act of charity. For the 1979 competition, Europe replaced Great Britain and by 1983 golf had a genuinely competitive international sporting spectacle, with political passion and hard feelings to match.
Triggered by competition, more specifically, a potent foreign enemy bent on acquiring global dominance, the Ryder Cup became a patriotic phenomenon. Professional in the United States rose to meet the threat. Players now covet a spot on the team. Despite the rivalries on the PGA Tour, where players such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, Ryder Cup stalwarts, openly disdain one another, American players express solidarity: they dress alike, practice together, socialize, and talk endlessly about the incomparable thrill of playing for their country, which, of course, they love. They never knew playing in the Ryder Cup could elicit such feeling. Remarkably, they are nothing if not sincere. Team uniforms (yes, golf uniforms) often involve red, white, and blue. Fans wave American flags en masse (at least when the event is held in the United States). Chants of USA! USA! USA! Or Europe! Europe! accompany victory. European patriotism may be in its infancy, but defeating a hated enemy, however artificially produced, resonates.
This is the stunning achievement of the Ryder Cup, for golf is an inherently individual pursuit. That is its attraction. It may be thought the sport of aristocrats, but it is played by many tens of millions of people around the world and its distance from the chauvinism of the Olympic Games, the World Cup, and other exercises in controlled national aggression recommend it. Golf was and is wonderfully isolating, even narcissistic, an exercise in self-overcoming. If you hate groups, this is the sport for you. Unlike team sports, your eventual success does not depend on teammates who may not be nearly as skilled as are you. It’s even anti-humanist. It’s you against a golf course.
The Ryder Cup makes professional golfers forget that they are, well, professional golfers, that is, selfish, pampered, overpaid, entitled, capitalist practitioners of a silly but fascinating game. Golf has no wider significance and this is its beauty. No more, perhaps, thanks to the Ryder Cup. Think of it as the pod-like power of patriotism. Golf still has a long way to go before it attains the cult status of football (what Americans call soccer). For one thing, golf measures success individually, by tournaments won (especially on the American tour), major championships in particular. Tiger Woods is chasing what was once thought to be (cliché alert) an unbreakable record: Jack Nicklaus’s total of eighteen major championships (a combination of the Masters, the United States Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship). This has been Woods’s goal since he was a small child, shorter than a golf club in fact. He may or may not surpass Nicklaus, but at the end of his career, talk will center on how many tournaments and how many majors he won. His Ryder Cup record will be irrelevant. The same is true for Nicklaus. No one knows his Ryder Cup record. What’s more, no one cares—not yet anyway. Golf is simply not a team sport let alone a national team sport, despite the existence of organized competition in high school and college. A few may know that Tiger Woods won the NCAA individual men’s championship in 1996, but no one knows (or cares) how Stanford, his alma mater, fared. Golf, moreover, is rightly known for its sportsmanship and integrity. Players do not root against one another and they self-report rules violations that no one else could possibly detect. This can cost them both victories and huge sums of money, but self-policing is part and parcel of the game.
The contrast with football is dramatic. Football players will do anything to win, whether it’s within the rules or not. The most recent World Cup demonstrated this, much to the outrage and national heartbreak of Ireland and Ghana. The rules of football encourage cheating. What do you have to lose, after all, if you can score or stop a game-winning goal by deflecting it with your hands? You give your team a chance to keep playing and become a national hero for ingenuity. You are a patriot. Just ask Thierry Henry of France and Luis Suarez of Uruguay. Football fans, likewise, are apparently capable of anything should their team not win. Andrés Escobar of Colombia was murdered after his own goal resulted in Colombia’s elimination from the 1994 World Cup.
Can golf survive the Ryder Cup’s appropriation? Will a sport defined by agonism become informed by antagonism? The signs are troubling. In the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, the United States won a close match thanks in part to poor sportsmanship otherwise unheard of in golf. Justin Leonard sealed, ultimately, the Cup for the United States by sinking a long putt on the 17th hole of his match with José Maria Olazábal, after which players, their wives, and fans rushed the putting green and staged a wild celebration. The only problem is that the celebration depended on, even presumed, Olazábal missing his putt, not yet attempted and rendered virtually impossible following the disruptive celebration. You’d think they had just won a war. Imagine people storming an Olympic basketball court before a player had to make a free throw to tie the championship game with one second remaining and you get something of the point.
The United States, Europe, and much of the world may be facing grave economic and political threats, but let’s not abandon golf to the flag-waving know-nothings without a fight. We should respect what it represents: a generalized disdain for everything but its own self-obsessive excellence and the drive to turn our backs on life, in the name of fun and torment, for a little while. Pace Mark Twain, do not let patriotism spoil the joy of a good walk. It’s done enough already.