Let’s be totally clear — the fuel that drives the Ryder Cup starts with fan engagement. Pull them out of the equation and the very fiber and soul of the event is gutted.
Anyone who has ever been to a Ryder Cup will quickly mention how uniquely special and different the matches are when held against any other golf event. And the emotion, zaniness, rapture — call it what you will — starts with the people attending.
From the chants of “USA, USA” to “Ole, Ole, Ole” — the Ryder Cup is a theater with pulsating fans. Spurring on players to go beyond what they thought humanly possible.
The pandemic the world faces has turned everything on its head. The major championships have each been impacted this year — three placed on hold till later this year and The Open simply cancelled.
The original Ryder Cup dates — September 25-27 — remain firmly in place — for now. Keep in mind, two of golf’s heavyweights and main players for each side have weighed in with their thoughts. World number one Rory McIlroy said emphatically. “Look, I love the Ryder Cup, but I just can’t see it going ahead without fans. I think there’s enough people within the game that don’t want the Ryder Cup to happen without fans. That’s why it’s either going to be played this year with fans if we can do that, or going to have to figure out kicking it down the road to a later date.”
Just imagine if the famed singles match between McIlroy and Patrick Reed that took place in 2016 at Hazeltine National was played without fans present. The fans spurred both players to display vintage golf. Without fans the crescendo of emotions would have been muted with an atmosphere akin to the mute button on one’s remote control
Four-time major champion and current number four ranked player Brooks Koepka provided a shared viewpoint — from the USA side. “The fans make that event, the fans make that special. It’s different than any other golf tournament we play. It’s a true sporting event. If we can have fans, that’s perfect, and if we can’t it just seems kind of like an exhibition.”
Should the matches be pushed back into 2021 — the move would not be unprecedented as the ’01 event was delayed a year because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Clearly, once one event is moved it does cause a series of other scheduling changes. If the Ryder Cup were pushed back a year to 2021 it would place the matches in the same calendar year with the rescheduled Summer Olympics planned for Japan. The President’s Cup Matches would likely also have to be moved back – to ’22.
A possible tangible benefit would mean Ryder Cup Matches scheduled for ’22 in Italy would be pushed to ’23 — giving the Italians more time to prepare given the massive impact the Covid-19 situation caused throughout the country.
The decision to postpone the ’20 matches is a shared one between the PGA of America and Ryder Cup Europe with the European Tour comprising 60% of the rights for the event with the remaining 40% split between the PGA of Great Britain and Ireland and The Ryder Cup European Development Trust.
PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh told WFAN Sports Radio in New York several weeks ago that the hope is to have fans at the event but it is, “to be determined, frankly, whether you’d hold it with fans or not.” Waugh added “the fans are the Ryder Cup.”
There is a cost in moving the event but an even bigger cost in going forward for September if key players like McIlroy and Koepka, and possibly others, balk at playing because fans are not in the equation. It would stand to reason for leaders of the organizing effort — on both sides of the pond — to solicit player feedback before making any final determination.
As the schedule exists now — the matches in Wisconsin will follow the week after the US Open is played at Winged Foot. The USGA opted to move its signature event from mid-June to mid-September given the impact the pandemic caused New York State generally and Westchester County specifically. Players participating would quickly have to switch gears since no past Ryder Cup has come in the week following a major championship.
What’s important to point out is that even with all the protocols in place to test players now competing on the PGA TOUR there’s no guarantee any of the star players cannot contract the virus and therefore be forced to sit out for a period of time.
When tournament golf ceased for a number of months the overall flow of the golf calendar was altered. This is especially so for those seeking to earn enough points to qualify for each respective team. With a condensed schedule, this has only added more pressure to secure points now. The net result could very well be teams on both sides not being at optimum levels. The USA side has altered its selection formula now allowing Captain Steve Stricker to make six Captain picks instead of the usual four. Will this mean Stricker using the additional picks to go with younger rising stars or favor past players who are now on the downside of their careers? The past has clearly shown a desire to do the latter — much to the detriment of the USA squad in being able to overcome Team Europe’s dominance since 1987.
Moving the event back one year would only ramp up the expected anticipation for fans and, at the same time, allow for a clear pathway with numerous tournament opportunities for players on both sides to qualify.
Going ahead with the matches without fans would be an economic loss to the immediate Wisconsin area. Stricker is a resident of the State and undoubtedly is counting on their participation to provide the extra emotional boost that comes from the home side. Playing without that home crowd edge could very much undercut the American squad especially if the team fails to get out of the gate quickly as happened when the USA squad got royally thumped when the matches were last played in Paris in 2018.
Ultimately, money lies at the heart of any final decision. The major television networks — NBC-Sports and Sky Sports clearly have a major interest in what happens. Leaving the matches in the existing dates could mean a very crowded calendar as other key sports begin to ramp. This is especially so with such heavyweights as the National Football League in the USA and the Premier League in the UK clearly looking to get going again and regain their immense fan foothold.
Far too many sports leagues often rave about their fans but far too often short sighted immediate needs — like making money — become the central driving force.
The Ryder Cup Matches are only behind the Olympics and World Cup in terms of viewership. But, the fans who are at the matches are the ones providing the real juice that can both motivate the strongest of players and intimidate the weakest of others. Yes, at times there has been boorish fan behavior — more often on the American side. However, even McIlroy, a favorite target at times, stated fan attendance is crucial at Whistling Straits even though he would be a prime target for their efforts.
The soaring roars that come with the Ryder Cup are no less equal to that of the role the players provide. The organizers need to fully comprehend this before any final decision is made. Whistling Straits is a first rate venue. But, let’s keep in mind, it’s a short term loss. The greater good in postponing the event is a clear acknowledgement fans are not an afterthought but a central and most needed dynamic.
We shall soon see if that is true.