Captain Strange looks to set different tone at this Ryder Cup

Posted: Friday, September 27, 2002

Still smarting over the last day of the last Ryder Cup, when a hard-charging, high-fiving U.S. team incited a near-riot, the PGA of America sent incoming captain Curtis Strange to charm school.

By some accounts, the training took hold too well.

''Hell, they've got Curtis wearing a skirt,'' grumbled Strange's identical twin brother, Allan.

Not yet.

But if Curtis Strange can change his stripes -- even a little -- it should be a breeze for everybody else.

On the eve of a Ryder Cup postponed by the events of last Sept. 11, Strange did exactly what his bosses hoped he would -- lead by example. Renowned on tour for his sharp tongue and sharper temper, Strange used a light touch to plead for a fierce but friendly competition.

''I remember seeing a headline in a French newspaper last September. It said: 'We're all Americans now,''' Strange said at opening ceremonies Thursday. ''I suppose it might be a bit too much to ask to have that attitude all this week, do you think?''

The crowd packing The Belfry for the 34th edition of golf's most contentious rivalry laughed, but few people doubted the sincerity of his request. If it needed reinforcing, European captain Sam Torrance followed Strange to the microphone.

''It is only our nationalities that divide us,'' he said. ''Join with us in showing the watching world that golf, at the highest level, can be a spectacle of which we can all be proud to be a part.''

Just the opposite was true three years ago. At The Country Club outside Boston, American Justin Leonard holed a 45-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole to cap a furious U.S. rally, and the place went up for grabs.

Celebrating teammates, caddies, wives, girlfriends and even a few U.S. officials rushed onto the green and turned it into a mosh pit. Drunken fans, some of whom had spit on the wife of European captain Mark James and said things about Scotsman Colin Montgomerie that would have started a fight in any country, took it as a cue to behave even worse.

''Everybody on our team regrets that that happened,'' Hal Sutton said, ''and wish that nothing like that happens here.''

Just wishing won't make it so.

When English merchant Sam Ryder donated the small gold trophy in 1927 that has become the object of such intense desire on both sides of the Atlantic, he also proposed a ''party afterward, with champagne and chicken sandwiches.''

Handed the same ingredients, today's Ryder Cuppers would prepare for a food fight. But it wasn't always so.

Between 1935 and 1983, U.S. golfers won all but one of the Ryder Cups. The most serious disagreements were over the grooves on some players' irons. The only slights were the wine stains on the autographed menus the teams exchanged.

That run of success -- and much of the civility -- came to an end two years later when Torrance beat reigning U.S. Open champion Andy North. The win would prove to be good for the competition but bad for behavior.

The Europeans have taken home the trophy in five of the last eight meetings, each time breeding more acrimony than the last. When Europe won for the first time on American soil, in 1987, they line-danced alongside the 18th green, then climbed on the clubhouse roof and doused each other with champagne. Their U.S. hosts stewed. Four years later, they showed up for the ''War by the Shore'' on Kiawah Island, S.C., wearing camouflage hats and whipping the home crowd into a patriotic frenzy. Viewed in that context, the over-the-top celebration at Brookline seemed almost inevitable.

In the days afterward, both sides began dialing down the intensity, moving back in the direction of Ryder's original proposal -- a sporting event that would deepen the friendship between allies. Those efforts took on added urgency in the wake of 9/11.

''The edge has been taken off the tournament a little bit and I think it's going to be a good thing,'' Tiger Woods said. ''I think we're going to see how it used to be played.''

In truth, something between the first few matches and the last one would be better. What made the Ryder Cup one of the best events in sport was the emotion it generated among players and fans.

Golf isn't the gentlemanly game it was in Ryder's time and won't be again. But it doesn't have to be the snarling spectacle it was last time, either. Organizers at The Belfry have banned alcohol sales on the course and promised to show unruly hecklers the gate. The game doesn't have a penalty box and golfers don't get flagged for unsportsmanlike behavior -- yet. Talk about striking a delicate balance.

''I like the chaos, the energy that comes with the Ryder Cup, but there's a very fine line between that and stepping over the line. It should,'' Swede Jesper Parnevik said, ''be right on top of that line.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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