GLENEAGLES, Scotland (AP) — Throw together some Englishmen with a Frenchman, a German and a Spaniard and you’ve got what sounds like the start of a joke.
Now toss in a Dane, a Swede, a Welshman, a Scot and a couple of Irishmen for what, over history, has been a recipe for countless misunderstandings and rivalries, and more than a few wars.
Yet at the Ryder Cup — perhaps only at the Ryder Cup — this potent stew of nationalities, cultures, languages and histories gels fantastically to put real flesh and bones on an idea that otherwise can be a hard sell: that of a united Europe.
Americans are fortunate. There’s no ambiguity about who they are. U.S. captain Tom Watson and his 12 players represent a nation with a clear and well-defined identity, a rich common history, and shared values and truths that Americans hold to be self-evident. Watson’s players hail from Florida, Texas and other proud states, but are Americans first.
In Europe, more often than not, it is the other way around: country first, continent second — even a distant second or not at all. The whole concept of what it means to be “European” is still a work in progress, hazy, even alien, to many.
Except, that is, for three days every two years, when European golf fans put nationality aside to rally behind the common cause of beating the Yanks at golf. Thanks, they might say, for helping us defeat Nazi Germany, for everything you did to help build modern Europe, the Marshall plan, staring down the Soviets and whatnot, but now watch our guys sink this birdie.
Which all makes golf’s premier team event politically interesting and, at the same time, also feel somewhat bizarre.
Nowhere else will you see Ordinary Joes draping the European Union flag over their shoulders or cheering “Europe! Europe!” as they will from the very first tee Friday when captain Paul McGinley’s merry band of 12 men from nine nations begin their defense of the cup.
Ask around in the crowds and you quickly find people who say they feel little or no love for the European Union but who are decked out in the EU colors of yellow and blue. It’s all a bit perplexing.
Waiting with friends for Rory McIlroy, the world No.1 from Northern Ireland, to thump what proved to be a wayward tee shot, Robert Boag said he would vote tomorrow for Britain to leave the EU, if given that option.
“I feel Scottish first, British second, European a distant last,” he said. “But I’d still support Europe in the Ryder Cup.”
Brian Downey, who traveled from Cork, Ireland, to cheer for Europe at his seventh Ryder Cup, said the European flag he tied around his neck would be packed away after this tournament and not be brought out again for another two years.
“It’s a Ryder Cup flag,” he said. “I have no real allegiance to it otherwise.”
Clearly, the idea of a united Europe still has a long road to travel. But if you listen to Sergio Garcia, you also realize how far it has come. The Spaniard is playing his seventh Ryder Cup.
“When I see Swedish people, German people, British people, obviously Spanish people, Italians, cheering for me, I mean you can’t feel more European than that,” Garcia said Wednesday. “When everybody comes together and cheers for one, for the same cause, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. I think that’s the ultimate European feeling.”
As a joined-up political, economic and, this week, sporting entity, Europe isn’t that old. After the madness and bloodshed of World War II, it was only in the 1950s that the process of union began, with six countries initially agreeing to commonly manage their coal and steel industries.
Not, it must be said, as inspiring a founding story as pilgrims braving the Atlantic crossing to remake lives in the New World. Perhaps little wonder, then, that some Europeans have trouble warming to the whole thing unless they’re watching Ian Poulter with a putter in his hand.
There are plenty of skeptics, in and out of politics, who would rebuild borders that the EU opened up and ditch its common currency. The irony, of course, is that some of them will surely also be crossing fingers and toes that McGinley, not Watson, lifts the four-pound gold trophy on Sunday.
At least in golf, the evidence is unequivocal: Europeans are far better off together. When the Ryder Cup was still restricted to players from Britain and then from Britain and Ireland, they were thumped so often by their American superiors that the tournament was becoming a bore.
Now, more often than not, the Europeans do the thumping: They have 10 wins in 17 tournaments since they started in 1979 to field teams that include players from the continent.
Divided it may still be on many other topics, but Europe — at the Ryder Cup, at least — is greater than the sum of its parts.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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