As a golf writer, the first question I’m always asked is, “What’s your handicap?” And it’s almost always followed up with, “Who shall I put my money on this week?”
Between Friday and Sunday, Chicago’s Medinah Country Club will provide the backdrop as teams from the United States and Europe lock horns in golf’s most fiercely contested team event: The Ryder Cup.
I know what you want to ask me, but this year is as difficult as it’s ever been to predict a winner. (And my handicap is 14.)
The US dominated the tournament until the mid-1980s, handing out some real thrashings in the process. But the European teams have got their own back quite significantly, winning four of the five events since the turn of the century.
Last time out at Celtic Manor, just a single point separated the teams and this is widely predicted to happen again – or, indeed, the first tied Ryder Cup since 1989 (and only the third of all time).
It’s interesting too to see how the two teams approach the competition. For the Americans, it’s a mental battle – all in the mind. For the Europeans, it’s about heart; it’s about passion.
And this year’s Ryder Cup carries significant poignancy.
Two years ago, Seve Ballesteros (left), a man who lived and breathed the Ryder Cup, was unable to attend due to illness. But from his home in Pedreña, Spain, Ballesteros phoned the European team in their Welsh hotel and delivered a heartbreaking speech which left many players in tears and captain Colin Montgomerie with the easiest team talk in sport history: Win it for Seve.
It was to be the Spaniard’s last contribution to a competition he held so dearly in his heart as he passed away several months later.
At Medinah, the Europeans will be led by José María Olazábal, who will be desperate for a victory in memory of his close friend and compatriot. In tribute, his team members will have the famous Seve silhouette embroidered on their bags and on Sunday will wear the navy blue and white combination favoured by the man who played in eight Ryder Cups and skippered one.
But American captain Davis Love III isn’t going to allow sentiment to get in the way of his goal to take back the famous trophy.
Love has a good mixture of experience and youthful eagerness in his team, not to mention the so-called 13th man – and Love has issued a warning to the Europeans that they can expect a hostile crowd in Chicago, with memories of 1999’s ‘Battle of Brookline’ still fresh in the mind of everyone associated with golf.
Then, the Americans had lost the previous two Ryder Cups and their fans were out to make it as difficult as they could for the European Tour stars, who were heckled over every shot.
But it was the actions of the US players, officials and wives which proved a bitter pill to swallow. Justin Leonard holed a 45-foot putt and, with opponent Olazábal still with a shot to play to level the match, the Americans invaded the green in celebration.
The Americans, so desperate to get their hands on the trophy again, put it down to a premature celebration borne of relief. It was too late.
While there are controversies in every sport, it was this one which hurt golf the most; a sour breach of the etiquette which the sport prides itself on – beamed to millions across the globe.
BBC Radio 4 broadcaster Alistair Cooke described the incident as “a day that will live in infamy”, and in his Letter from America series, discussed “the arrival of the golf hooligan”.
While it is unlikely it will happen to that level again, Englishman Ian Poulter stoked the flames this week when he said: “You can be great mates with somebody [on the opposing team], but boy do you want to kill them in the Ryder Cup.”
Golf – and this tournament in particular – needs incidents like Brookline to intensify a rivalry which keeps us coming back every other year.
“The Ryder Cup means too much to us to ever lose that edge,” added Poulter, and it’s not just the players who feel this way.
This is the only golf tournament which offers the unique mixture of jubilation and devastation that my football team causes me week-in, week-out.
And I’ll be glued to my television set for every single shot.
Golfmagic.com is Europe’s largest digital golf magazine, offering news, views, features and equipment and course reviews, as well as the most populated chat forum on the continent.