Martin Vousden: Fight! Fight!

Thought for the Day
A workplace conference is the confusion of one person, multiplied by the number present

Call that an argument?
With the dust settling in the aftermath of the Ryder Cup, much of the post-match reporting has centered on the supposed free and frank exchange of views between American team-mates Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson. In reality, the whys and wherefores of their alleged argument are hardly pistols at dawn.

Don’t think I’m trying to draw a veil of discretion and slyly gloss over my prognostication last month that we Europeans were going to be beaten worse than a red-headed stepchild. Rarely have I been as delighted to be proven so spectacularly wrong and the nature of the shockingly one-sided contest surely explains why a few American tempers may have been frayed in the aftermath.

Nevertheless, this latest spat barely registers on the Richter scale of golfing disputes, even between members of the same team. For example, the 1969 contest is rightly remembered and lauded for Jack Nicklaus’ gracious concession to Tony Jacklin of a very missable putt. Their match and the whole contest was all-square but what Nicklaus – the coolest thinker ever under pressure – realised was that, as holders, America would retain the trophy. Nevertheless, his captain, Sam Snead, and several of Jack’s team-mates, were livid and the skipper refused to talk to Nicklaus for some time afterwards.

Snead said: ‘When it happened all the boys thought it was ridiculous to give him that putt. We went out there to win, not to be good ‘ol boys. I never would have given a putt like that – except maybe to my brother.’

What has become known simply as The Concession has also papered over the fact that this 1969 contest was one of the most rancorous in Ryder Cup history. It started with GB&I captain Eric Brown, a feisty, flinty Scotsman who, like the character from PG Wodehouse, was not to be confused with a ray of sunshine, shamefully instructing his team not to help their opponents look for golf balls in the rough. And then Ken Still, a walking bag of neuroses, helped crank tension up by several degrees. In the first day foursomes he was partnered with Lee Trevino and as he played a bunker escape, it looked as if his ball rebounded onto his shoulder. When Trevino asked if this was what happened, Still refused to answer and to his eternal credit, Lee told him to pick up the ball and conceded the hole.

Later the same day, this time in partnership with Dave Hill, opposing Bernard Gallacher and Brian Huggett in fourballs, all of Still’s petty, niggling neuroses came to the fore – although it must also be conceded that his opponents, both with their Celtic dander’s up, didn’t take a backward step either. The fractious match caused Still’s temper, never equable, to approach volcanic – largely, it has to be said because Gallagher and Huggett were much more familiar with match play rules, and used that knowledge to their advantage. Things came to such a head that both team captains, president of the PGA Lord Derby and several policemen had to be called to stop the snarling golfers from slugging it out physically, with a near baying crowd poised to join in.

But even that contretemps pales into near-insignificance when set against the rolling feud between Paul Azinger and Seve Ballesteros which remains, so far at least, The Daddy of Ryder Cup antagonism. Azinger could start a fight in an empty room but Ballesteros could start one on an empty planet. I bow to no-one in my admiration and yes, love of Seve but during his career he managed to argue with just about everyone with whom he came into contact, but he reserved a special kind of animosity towards Americans.

This particular feud started in 1989 in their singles match at The Belfry. On the second hole Seve wanted to change his ball but Azinger disagreed that it needed to be replaced and the referee sided with the American. Game on. Playing the 18th, Azinger drove into the water and got what Seve considered to be a favourable penalty drop and went on to win the match. The fact that the American dropped his ball where the on-course official told him to cut no ice with Ballesteros. Few men have ever been as convinced of their own infallibility as the Spaniard.

Two years later they were at it again as Seve and Jose Maria Olazabal drew Paul and Chip Beck in the opening morning foursomes at Kiawah Island – which quite possibly surpassed 1969 as the most acrimonious Ryder Cup of them all. The Americans, innocently or not, were switching the compression of their golf ball between holes. Azinger insisted they had not been cheating and Seve replied: ‘Paul, nobody’s accusing you of cheating, just breaking the rules – that’s a different thing.’ From being three down at the turn the furious and fired-up Spanish duo won the match 2&1. Later Azinger said of Ballesteros: ‘He gets a really bad cough every Ryder Cup.’ Seve replied: ‘The American team is eleven nice guys and Paul Azinger.’

In light of these falling-outs, the fact that Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson may have put their close friendship temporarily on hold in the aftermath of a humiliating defeat is hardly worth reporting.

What is worth noting, however, is that when Paul Azinger was diagnosed with cancer of the shoulder, one of the first messages of good luck he received came from Seve. The hatchet was well and truly buried. These disputes, disagreements and dislikes always seem major at the time but rarely survive too long. This is golf, after all.

Quote of the Week
Golf is about how well you accept, respond to, and score with your misses much more so than it is a game of your perfect shots
Dr Bob Rotella

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