Good start vital for Europe to help silence rumbustious home crowd

After the infamous controversy at Brookline in 1999, Mark James believes the atmosphere at Ryder Cup events has never quite been the same since, reports Nick Westby.

A Ryder Cup on American soil has, since 1999, elicited a minor sense of foreboding in European teams.

Not a fear about the calibre of players they are facing, more a heightened awareness about the potential ‘un’welcome they will receive from the galleries.

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Golf is a gentleman’s game, played by and watched by people who have the utmost respect for one another.

That all changed in 1999, when lines were crossed and greens were trampled on at the infamous Battle of Brookline.

That green was the 17th. When Justin Leonard drained an enormous putt to edge the United States to the brink of victory, all etiquette in golf was flagrantly disregarded by stampeding players, wives and officials of the home team.

It was a watershed moment in the Ryder Cup, and for the integrity of the sport and its biggest event, officials on both teams were determined never to let it happen again.

In the five matches since there has never been a repeat, save for isolated incidents.

For Mark James – a man very much at the centre of the Brookline storm – the memory of it still rankles.

It was not necessarily the actions of the players on the 17th green that so irked the European captain, who entitled his memoirs of that Ryder Cup captaincy Into the Bear Pit, but the abuse his players were subjected to by the galleries.

“There was a lot of stuff that went on,” James told the Yorkshire Post.

“The way the American players and wives ran onto the 17th green was a minor thing in the end, although it should have resulted in (Jose Maria) Olazabal’s putt being conceded and should never have happened.

“What happened on the 17th was on overflowing of emotions. That sort of thing can happen.

“It was the abuse of the players by the crowd that was the worst aspect of it. There is no call for that in golf.

“And to make it worse there was nothing done about it. No-one batted an eyelid that our players were getting abuse from the crowd.

“There was no action taken by the security, or anyone on the American team.

“I know one of our players got pretty upset about it all. We had to sit down with him for about 30 minutes just trying to get him in the frame of mind to go back out there again.”

Colin Montgomerie bore the brunt of the vitriol from a bawdy Boston crowd and let his feelings of frustration and disappointment be known.

Since then, the stance of Europe’s victorious captain of two years ago has mellowed, as he believes, has the atmosphere at Ryder Cups in America.

“There is a risk,” accepted Montgomerie ahead of Friday’s match. “I think the Ryder Cup and other sporting events when America played internationally changed since 9/11.

“America realised we were their allies, their great allies – but that was 11 years ago and time moves on.”

In 2008 at Valhalla, Lee Westwood took similar flack from pockets of the gallery, and although that was an isolated incident, there is always an element of trepidation about how the high-profile European players will be greeted.

Medinah, venue for this week’s 39th playing of the Ryder Cup, is situated just an hour away from the sports-mad, blue collar city of Chicago.

The atmosphere is guaranteed to be raucous.

“There’s a fine line between raucous and abusing players, though, and it was crossed in 1999,” warned James.

“It has improved a lot since then. In 2002, I was an assistant to Sam (Torrance) and it was important to him that there be no repeat.

“There was a significant security presence. No alcohol was allowed to be taken onto the course.

“I heard that at Valhalla (2008) it was generally a lot better. The crowd were fairly raucous but you expect that.”

Four years ago US captain Paul Azinger actively encouraged his players to embrace the crowd as the 13th man. T-shirts were handed out and the players attended a high school football-style pep rally in downtown Louisville on the eve of the game to rev up the crowd.

Such self-trumpeting worked to perfection as roared on by the Kentucky natives, Azinger’s men got on top of the Europeans early and never surrendered the lead.

Even though 13 years ago his side’s bright start served only to increase the levels of rancour from the galleries, James believes that if Olazabal’s team can get off to a good start in tomorrow’s morning foursomes, they can go a long way to silencing the crowd.

“If the home side gets off to a good start it can be disastrous for Europe,” said James, who lives in Burley-in-Wharfedale and plays on the European Seniors Tour.

“A good start by Europe should hopefully quieten the home crowd. And from a playing perspective, you want to stay in front whatever happens.

“There’s a lot of points still to play for, but we’ve seen in the past that it can become a whitewash very quickly if you don’t keep in touch.”