The world’s top golfers came in for ridicule after many chose not to take part in the Rio Olympics and golf’s first appearance at the Games since 1904.
In fairness, many probably had their eyes trained elsewhere. Like the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota, the venue for the Ryder Cup, and a potential record fourth straight win for Europe. On the ego-driven fairways of the pro tour, this competition is the one chance players have to be part of a team. For the likes of Rory McIlroy, it is a rare blessing.
“It will be good for McIlroy to be part of the Europe team after not playing in the Olympics,” says 2010-winning captain Colin Montgomerie, who didn’t hide his disappointment about the lack of elite players at the Olympics in August.
“Europe’s always managed to have that ethos of pulling for each other. I never played for myself in the Ryder Cup: my personal record didn’t mean a damn thing. I was very much of the opinion that if I was getting a point, then that was one point closer to 14 and a half.”
So when McIlroy joins up with Olympic gold medal winner Justin Rose, Masters winner Danny Willett, PGA Champion Chris Wood and Open winner Henrik Stenson, they will all leave their egos at the door?
“There will be no animosity. When they get to Minnesota they’ll be hugging, shaking hands, high fiving. There’s no fear there with the European team.”
No fear of Europe falling out – but what about USA? Recent European dominance has riled USA players and fans alike. You could hear it in Phil Mickleson’s barbed comments directed at captain Tom Watson after the loss in 2014, when he said America had “strayed from a winning formula”; how in comparison, 2008-winning captain Paul Azinger had a “real game plan”.
Will this tension filter through to the crowds? USA fans may have mellowed slightly compared to Brookline 1999, when Montgomerie’s father walked off the course, unable to stand the abuse being thrown at his son. In Hazeltine, Montgomerie says, the galleries will be twitchy rather than tormenting.
“America want this back badly. The crowd will be very loud, and very patriotic. They’ve lost this thing six out of the last seven. They’ve put a lot behind this: task forces, Tiger Woods as vice-captain, changing the picking process. If they lose this one, I don’t know where they’re going to go.”
Monty’s a canny operator, and when he says the USA team are clear favourites, you’re never quite sure whether he’s trying to give his former vice-captain Darren Clarke a helping hand, turning what has become a dominant Europe into plucky underdogs.
“The USA are favourites this time. They are at home; they probably have a stronger team on paper – one rookie against six rookies on the European team is a big difference. We’ll see if they can cope with the extreme pressure that’s on them to win this thing back.
“If America lose this, that’s seven out of eight. And they’ll probably lose in France in 2018. They might start to think, ‘Well we don’t want to play in this anymore.’ We don’t want that! Let’s get competitive again.”
Ryder Cup Golf starts 12.30pm today, Sky Sports 1