Thank goodness, the medal-play season is almost over--that
interminable stretch of the golf calendar during which 150 or so
players tee up every Thursday and flail away, mostly unheeded,
while a handful of contenders command our attention for four
days. Ahead, as refreshing as autumn's first frost, is the team
match-play season. During Sept. 13-15 at Lake Manassas, Va., in
the Presidents Cup, a dozen of America's top pros will tackle an
International team captained by whichever gray-haired gent
answers Greg Norman's phone calls the quickest. A week later, in
Chepstow, Wales, the American-born stars of the LPGA will take
on Europe's women pros in the Solheim Cup. For two whole weeks
we will be treated to the game as it was conceived by the
shepherds in Scotland: as a contest between golfers playing the
same holes at the same time.
The fact that neither of these events is as old as some of my
golf towels does not detract from their appeal. The team format,
borrowed from the venerable Walker Cup, Curtis Cup and Ryder Cup
competitions, overcomes the recognized flaws of match play as a
spectator attraction. In regular match play, if Nick Faldo loses
in the first round, he's on a wide-bodied jet before dinner. But
if Faldo and his partner lose a morning foursomes match in the
Ryder Cup, they're likely to get a rematch that very afternoon.
Fans don't wander the parking lot with their Day 2 tickets,
kicking tires and muttering, "Fred Funk."
Another plus: In team match play every match is worth watching.
It matters little if Val Skinner and Patricia Meunier Lebouc are
three over and four over par, respectively. What matters is that
a team point is up for grabs--a point that could determine which
side gets to wave its flags and which has to hide its tears.
But what really makes team match play special is the
unpredictable behavior of athletes used to competing as
individuals. At the Solheim Cup, sunglassed golfers who normally
exhibit as much emotion as tollbooth cashiers will reinvent
themselves as Wheel of Fortune contestants. Winners will
exchange high fives and yelp like sorority sisters at an
engagement party. At the Presidents Cup, trash talkers will
emerge--"We're gonna kick some foreign butt!"--and players who
normally won't share their views on the weather will suddenly
and inexplicably blurt out opinions on abortion, welfare reform
and reincarnation. (Before the 1993 Ryder Cup, Paul Azinger
threatened to boycott a White House send-off ceremony because he
didn't want "to shake hands with a draft dodger," meaning Bill
Clinton. The comment caused considerable foot shuffling and
throat clearing among older PGA Tour players, whose Vietnam-era
slogan was Make Birdies, Not War.)
This time the International men are first out of the controversy
blocks with their puzzling impeachment of captain David Graham.
But the U.S. team will hardly be friction-free: Davis Love III
and Brad Faxon recently torched teammate Scott Hoch for skipping
the British Open. (How will captain Arnold Palmer lubricate his
team's moving parts? With Pennzoil?) As for the Solheim Cup
participants, they will surely find something to fuss about in a
country where the street signs, in Welsh, are as long as the
streets. Some lassie will make a flip remark, and a day later it
will be pinned to a dozen locker room doors, a headline in
64-point type. Count on it.
Traditionalists will object that these flaps and frictions are
aberrations, trifles made large by a sensation-seeking press. To
which I, a seasoned sensation seeker, reply, but of course. The
big team events are gaining on the major championships in terms
of audience and prestige, and the day may come when a hissy fit
at the Ryder Cup is a bigger story than a playoff victory at St.
That's cool. Golf was meant to be more than a good walk audited.
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Solheim salute: Betsy King (left) and Donna Andrews in '94.