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The Ryder Cup isn't a war or a grudge match and has become more kind and gentle over the years. Ian Poulter, however, is shaking things up again.
Any Ryder Cup fanatics hoping for a redux of 1991’s War by the Shore are likely to be disappointed. The matches of 21 years ago may have set a belligerent tone for future European-U.S. contretemps (see: Brookline, 1999), but if we are to believe many of this year’s contestants, the Medinah matches are more likely to resemble Steve Elkington’s facetious “Kissy Kissy...Hug Hug” affair than any sort of armed combat.
“There's really not any [parallel between playing and fighting for your country]," Bubba Watson told reporters Thursday.. "The military is] doing something that really means something. We're playing golf."
More to the point, Watson noted, familiarity with the opponent has bred the opposite of contempt.
“You know, it’s not really a dislike [for the European players],” he said. “We're friends with all of them, we've played golf with all of them for years. We know them all, we know their families.”
It would be a mistake, however, to mistake such sentiments for a lack of passion. It is the Ryder Cup, after all, and the Euros are just as fervid about holding onto the trophy as Team USA is to wrest it back for only the second time in what on Sunday night will have been six meetings since the turn of the century.
Jim Furyk set the tone early, when he said last week that his U.S. squad considered European competitor Rory McIlroy a “marked man” because of his status as the world’s best golfer. Tiger Woods did nothing to tone down the rhetoric when he agreed with his teammate.
“You're always going to want to try and take out their best player,” Woods said earlier in the week. “That's just part of the deal.”
Ian Poulter, however, took the trash talk to a new level. Poulter may have a home in Florida, be one of eight Europeans who are members of the PGA Tour, and consider this week’s opponents to be his “great mates,” but the Englishman added shades of 1991 to the proceedings when he revealed how avid he was to retain the cup.
"It means too much to us for it ever to lose that edge,” Poulter said Wednesday. “This event is unique. I mean, you know, I hate to say we don't get on for three days, but there is that divide, and it's not that we don't like each other. We are all good friends, both sides of the pond.
“But there's something about Ryder Cup which kind of intrigues me,” he added. “How you can be great mates with somebody, but, boy, do you want to kill them in Ryder Cup."
Poulter’s choice of words may serve as bulletin board material for the Americans, but former U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins would, no doubt, second that emotion.
“Just get ready for a fight,” Wadkins said during Wednesday night’s Feherty Live broadcast on Golf Channel. “You have to go out there ‑‑ friendliness is gone....Ryder Cups, it was all about how badly can I beat this guy, and if I can beat him that bad, let's beat him worse. They have to take that to heart.
“If I was going to tell the American team something right now,” Wadkins told host David Feherty, “it would be to get ready to step on their neck and twist your foot.”
For sure, such hyperbole is nothing new to sports, but several players sought to mitigate the bombast.
“There's definitely less of a 'them and us' type of thing now from everybody's point of view,” England’s Lee Westwood said.
American Matt Kuchar concurred.
“Twenty years ago...guys wouldn't really know each other, there would be two separate tours and you wouldn't see each other very much other than a couple majors and the Ryder Cup,” Kuchar said. “Now we seem to see each other all the time, week in and week out....You get to know the other members of each team....You just form some good friendships.”
Despite such warm and fuzzies, golf fans need not worry about Ryder Cup participants losing their competitive intensity -- just the animosity that sparked several earlier tilts.
For sure, U.S. captain Davis Love III wants nothing more than to hammer his good friend, Jose Maria Olazabal, and his gang of European golfers. But in the end, it is still just a game.
“It’s not a war, it’s a party,” Love said. “Do we want to pummel them, of course. But it’s a golf match. We will get chippy but it will be respectful.”