For more content from our week on-site at the 2023 Ryder Cup, check out our live page.
I cry easily.
It is not something I am particularly proud of. I grasp (and appreciate) the sentiment of therapy-speak that has become important in recent years, that suppressing your emotions is far more dangerous than letting them bubble over. But it can be embarrassing when you find yourself welling up in public, when your voice catches in the back of your throat and your vision blurs.
None of my friends, when I was growing up, were as quick to cry as I was. They were tough and I was soft. For years, this was a source of shame. I did not want to feel so vulnerable, and yet I did not know how to suppress it, how to change my DNA.
It was particularly embarrassing when those tears were connected to sports.
To cry at a funeral, or because I had my heart broken, was one thing. Listening to sad songs was another. You could do those things in private. But spilling tears in disappointment over a loss, over having let others down, felt like the personification of weakness. No one, I suspected, wanted that in a teammate. I gravitated toward football for numerous reasons, but part of its appeal — I realize in retrospect — must have been that I could better hide my emotions inside a helmet, or at least claim it was sweat that was smearing my eye black, not my own tender heart.
I do not remember when I started watching the Ryder Cup. I’d love to pretend it was the War on The Shore in 1991. I am, after all, the appropriate age. I was 13 that September, heavily invested in sports. A month later, I would uncontrollably sob in my kitchen when Magic Johnson announced he was retiring from professional basketball after testing positive for HIV, but to pretend that I cared about golf back then would be an invention of the mind, a rewriting of history, the way you look at a picture of yourself as a kid enough times that your brain makes a copy, tricking you into believing it’s a memory.
I remember scenes from Brookline in 1999, but only vaguely. The obvious stuff. Ben Crenshaw wagging his finger. Justin Leonard with his arms raised, his mouth open, a herd of American players, caddies and wives dressed in ridiculous shirts spilling onto the green in rapture. I jumped off my couch and let loose an emphatic roar. But I quickly turned my attention back to football.
Golf was a curiosity, and my investment in the Ryder Cup was incidental. It happened to be on television that morning. I had nearly missed it, and would not have given it a second thought if I had. I have no memory of the 2002 Ryder Cup. I doubt I watched a shot.
Whatever flame Brookline lit did not take long to flicker out.
In 2009, a friend called me with an unexpected inquiry: Did I want to join him and some of his friends on a golf trip to the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia? We would divide into two teams and face each other in match play, much like the Ryder Cup. With some trepidation, I accepted. I was 31 years old. I played golf infrequently, leisurely, and rarely broke 100 when I did tee it up. I had never played a single round of match play in my life. It seemed like an excuse to drink beer and meet new people.
I did not expect to be nervous. It was, after all, a meaningless competition played in front of no fans. The stakes could scarcely have been lower. We didn’t even have a trophy. But on the first tee, I could feel my chest pounding. Over the course of three days, the club felt like a rattlesnake in my hands. I barely knew my teammates, but each bad swing I made (and there were many), I was convinced I was letting them down, and would never be invited back. My partner and I got blown out in our first two matches, and I was so embarrassed, that I wanted to walk into the Virginia woods — alone — and have a good cry. The desire to do so only intensified my embarrassment.
When my teammates staged a comeback in singles on the final day to capture the cup (with no help from me; I lost yet again) I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I struggled to explain it to my wife when I returned home. Why did I care so much about such a meaningless competition?
It wasn’t until a year later that I saw something that helped me make sense of it. In 2010, the United States and Europe were battling on the final day of the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in Wales, and the margin between the two teams was razor-thin. A half point in either direction would ultimately decide the cup. Twice Rickie Fowler stared down lengthy putts where a miss would have given Europe the Ryder Cup, and both times, he made them. Stewart Cink had a putt that could have beaten Rory McIlroy and it missed by a few inches. Jim Furyk had a sand wedge into the 18th green for his third shot in his singles match against Luke Donald, knowing a birdie would likely halve his match, and he dumped it into the bunker. The final hour was madness.
Our collective memory has not been kind to Hunter Mahan over what happened next, and re-watching it more than a decade later, that’s a shame. His opponent, Graeme McDowell, won the Ryder Cup more than Mahan lost it, but because of how the math shook out, the Americans' final hopes rested on Mahan’s shoulders. After a ridiculous birdie by McDowell on the 16th hole, Mahan was 2-down with two holes to play. If he could somehow win the final two holes, he would halve the match and the United States (the defending champion) would retain the cup. All McDowell needed was a tie, and it would go back to Europe.
When Mahan’s tee shot came up several yards short of the 17th green, and McDowell’s much worse approach took a fortuitous bounce in the rough and found the putting surface, Mahan’s task grew even more difficult. He now faced a delicate uphill chip off a tight, soggy lie that he needed to hole. Anything less and the match (and the cup) was Europe’s.
You almost certainly recall what happened next. Mahan flubbed it.
America’s best chance to win in Europe since 1993 slipped painfully away.
In the press conference after the event, Mahan was understandably shaken. He struggled to string together sentences, pausing several times to suppress the tears that were desperate to spill over. His hand shook when he drank from a glass of water. In a memorable moment of grace and kindness, Phil Mickelson — who was seated next to Mahan — leaned into the microphone in front of his teammate and helped fill the painful silence.
“We are all proud to be part of this team,” Mickelson said, as Mahan brushed away a tear. “We came out today and we all played with a lot of heart.” When Mahan again struggled to answer a question about his match, Zach Johnson put a hand on Mahan’s shoulder.
It’s patently absurd to compare my own meaningless golf matches to something as grand and meaningful as the Ryder Cup. (I know this, but you are welcome to point it out anyway.) I still tear up, however, when I watch Mahan in that press conference. I cannot relate to the level of golf, but I can relate to the sentiment, the longing for connection and brotherhood.
Next week, after the Ryder Cup ends, I’ll fly from Rome to Michigan to go on my 14th golf trip with that same group of friends. We have stuck together through job changes and divorces, through the death of several parents and the birth of many children. Once strangers, we’re now a loving dysfunctional pseudo-family. We have found something we care deeply about, and though we are the only ones to care about it (as our wives often remind us), the bond is what matters above all. In our lowest moments, it remains a lantern in the swamp, something to light the way forward until we can gather again.
No writer has ever grasped this sentiment better than Roger Angell, who penned the following paragraph in the pages of The New Yorker in 1975. He was writing about Carlton Fisk’s famous home run off the left field foul pole in Game 6 of the World Series, but he was also writing in defense of sports. It is a paragraph I return to often, usually for reassurance, when I question why I chose sports to be such an essential part of my life, both personally and professionally.
"It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look -- I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring -- caring deeply and passionately, really caring -- which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete -- the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball -- seems a small price to pay for such a gift."
The Ryder Cup has become a ridiculous commercial behemoth in the last three decades. Its participants are wealthier, and more famous, than the golfers who started this tradition in 1927 could have possibly fathomed. But some sentiments endure.
When Rory McIlroy beat Xander Schauffele in singles at Whistling Straits two years ago, he surprised much of the golfing world when he teared up twice — much like Mahan had done — in his post-round interviews. McIlroy had won his match, but he knew he had not done enough the previous two days for Europe to retain the Ryder Cup.
“I don’t think there’s any greater privilege than to be part of one of these teams,” McIlroy said. “It’s an absolute privilege. They’ve always been the greatest experiences of my career. I’ve never really cried or gotten emotional over what I’ve done as an individual. I couldn’t give a shit. But this team and what it feels like to be a part of … it’s phenomenal. And I’m so happy to be a part of it.”
Different people are moved by different things, and if cinema or literature or music or politics is what moves you, consider yourself equally blessed. Sports can be selfish and soulless, and we are right to examine and debate them with skeptical — even cynical — eyes.
But every two years, I am reminded of Mahan, and then of Mickelson’s gesture. I am reminded of Jose Maria Olazabal at Medinah weeping to the sky as he spoke to Seve Ballesteros. I’m reminded of Darren Clarke at the K Club, having recently lost his wife, sobbing in caddie Billy Foster’s arms at the end of his singles match. I’m reminded of Rory at Whistling Straits, and what it means to row for a cause bigger than your bank account.
It’s the caring that counts.