September has come back,
—“When September Arrives, Again”
Lawrence S. Pertillar
Nobody, so far as I could tell, took it over the corner on the sixteenth hole on Tuesday, though the wind was blowing hard from the southwest. The sixteenth is also known, at least to those of us who were there, as Sergio’s hole, because of the shot Sergio Garcia hit at the 1999 PGA Championship, when he missed a tree-root, hit his ball—with his eyes closed—and ran up the hill to follow it. It may have been the last moment of pure joy Sergio ever experienced, as the years—and the missed putts—seem to have weighed heavier and heavier on him. But Sergio’s old role, as spark-plug of the European players, seems to have been passed down, as to watch Rory McIlroy today was to see the kind of exhilaration that’s been missing from golf since Sergio took that shot.
I went to the Ryder Cup at Medinah today for two reasons, the first being to take my mom. The other, however, was more purposeful: to see McIlroy. I saw the 1999 PGA and what I remember most about it, aside from seeing Tiger hole out a 280-yard three-wood shot on the range before Saturday’s round, was just hearing the sound the ball made coming off Tiger’s club that year. It didn’t make, or didn’t quite make, the same sound when Tiger returned in 2006: in 1999, his shots sounded like a funeral salute by the USS Missouri followed by the sound of a Saturn V rocket lifting off. The only player whose shots made anything like the same sound that year was Sergio.
I wanted to know if McIlroy’s shots made the same sound, and though, because of the logistical difficulties of negotiating Medinah’s back nine in traffic, I only really got to seem him play one hole—the fourteenth—it was enough. He hit a second shot out of the rough on that hole that made The Sound, a sound that no one else’s golf ball made—and that I haven’t heard since 1999, during the tournament that began Tiger’s superhuman annus mirabilis from that late summer until the spring following the next year. Still, neither McIlroy nor anybody else took over the corner on sixteen, the shot I’ve waiting all season for someone to hit.
Over the winter the crew took out a bunch of trees all over the golf course, and a lot of them were on the inside of sixteen’s dogleg left: there’s now an open area there that used be arboreally enclosed. And with a following wind I thought that, particularly during a practice round, somebody might try it, even if it meant some risk to spectators. But nobody dared. And Tiger had long since left the golf course before his foursome—the teams practiced in foursomes today—reached the sixteenth hole. So I could not tell if Tiger’s golf ball still made the same sound, or how it compared to Rory’s sound.
Which is unfortunate, because almost certainly the story of this Ryder Cup is going to be Tiger vs. Rory, no matter if they end up playing against each other in singles or not (and almost certainly they must, as no one will accept anything else). And that itself begins another chapter in the history of this tournament: a chapter with especial meaning if one takes the Ryder Cup as a metonymy—and as George Orwell once suggested, there isn’t any meaning to athletic competition if we don’t—for some larger story.
“The 1991 Ryder Cup,” begins Curt Sampson’s latest book excerpt in Golf this month, “began in 1985.” That was the year that the European squad—which had been the Great Britain & Ireland side until 1979, and before that simply the British team—beat the Americans at the Belfry, in England. It was the first time the team from the right-hand side of the Atlantic had won since 1957, when the Welsh captain, Dai Rees, and his squad had held off the Americans at Lindrick. And that occasion had itself been the first time the accented team had won since before the Second World War.
“When the first wave of tough young American pros, steeled in the caddie yards, started winning in the late twenties,” Sampson writes, “the game was changed forever.” In those years, one might say, the narrative line was that of the upstart Yanks, the former colonials, come to repay the imperialists. And, for the most part, the “chivalrous but overwhelmed Brits” acted their role: dutifully laying down before the American firepower every two years just as, during the Second World War, the Brits seceded place before the American commanders.
Yet what Rory’s new accession to the world #1 position seems to imply that a new generation of people from the islands to the northwest of the European continent have no memories of the Blitz and rationing, or the strums of Mississippi-born, Chicago-bred Negros on electric guitars. And that, for Europe at last, the long legacy of a century’s battles against totalitarianisms of one kind or another, is over. If the long darkness of the Ryder Cup, as seen from the east side of the sea, mirrored Europe’s own eclipse during the Cold War, in other words, it seems that a new day is dawning.
All of which seems to imply that it is now the United States that plays the role once played by imperial Britain: a fading power, still august in its dotage but whose day is slowly receding. It’s an image that I suppose a great many people, even aside from European golfers, might like to conjure. Yet I happened to watch Bill Clinton on the Daily Show the other day, and he made a point young Rory and his fans—and, perhaps, others with more sinister thoughts— might like to contemplate.
People pessimistic about America, the former president pointed out, ought to know that, in two decades, America will be younger, in a demographic sense, than Europe. It will also be younger than Japan. And also (perhaps more astonishingly)—because of the one-child policy and a complete lack of immigration—America will be younger than China. Which is to say that, even if the next Tiger happens to have been born in Northern Ireland—which hasn’t yet been proven—it may be more likely than not that the next Rory will be born in America. Though, it may be, he will arrive—like the wind on Tuesday—from the southwest, and his surname be not dissimilar from, say, Garcia.