x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

While you were sleeping golf woke up to many new fans

The Ryder Cup has always unified and divided golf's most passionate followers. But this year's edition may have pulled off an even bigger trick: converting the most casual of observers into true supporters.

Graeme McDowell comforts Team Europe's captain Jose Maria Olazabal.
Graeme McDowell comforts Team Europe's captain Jose Maria Olazabal.

The superlatives quickly became obsolete. So awe-inspiring were the historic scenes, those who witnessed them were left struggling for metaphors.

Sporting "miracles" are almost cliched. Even "back from the dead" somehow seemed inadequate.

Seve Ballesteros, the Spanish legend whose name adorned the shirts of Europe's golfers and whose memory cast a shadow over the weekend's action, was smiling down from the heavens, we were told.

Viewers in this part of the world who stuck with the 2012 Ryder Cup to its conclusion, some who believed in the face of logic that the impossible could somehow yet be achieved, were rewarded with an epic golfing story like no other.

But as Sunday night turned into Monday morning, few of those bleary-eyed fans were likely to be natives of these lands.

Europe's triumph over the US may have provided more tension than a World Cup final, a Wimbledon duel and a Formula One decider combined, but its significance would have been lost to most.

How to even convey the story to the non-believers? The records will show that Europe somehow conjured up a barely credible 14.5 to 13.5 comeback win. But as ever, the real narrative of the Ryder Cup came in its subplots.

The supreme American putting of the first two days. Ian Poulter and Bubba Watson playing to the crowds. Tiger Woods's Jekyll-and-Hyde performance. Lee Westwood's meltdown. The memories of Brookline 1999. The world No 1 Rory McIlroy coming good at the right time. Justin Rose's birdies on 17 and 18 clinching a priceless singles win. And the German Martin Kaymer's decisive putt, so reminiscent of countryman Bernhard Langer's failed effort in 1991.

And above all, Europe's captain, the dignified, emotional Jose-Maria Olazabal channelling the spirit of his close friend Ballesteros throughout.

The Ryder Cup has always unified and divided golf's most passionate followers. But this year's edition may have pulled off an even bigger trick: converting the most casual of observers into true fans. No longer the domain of the rich, golf is now a game for the people.

In truth, golf, a sport that requires patience and discipline, is still perceived by many in this region as foreign, dull and elitist. It is, of course, none of these things.

The charge of elitism, in particular, does not stand up to scrutiny. Golf courses and driving ranges across the Emirates are increasingly accessible and affordable to a large section of the public (green fees as low as Dh350); rates for golf lessons are competitive; and events like the Dubai Desert Classic, the DP World Tour Championship and the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship attract thousands each year.

With more than 20 courses across the Emirates, the UAE Golf Federation now oversees some of the best golfing facilities in the world. Yet they are mostly enjoyed by expatriate residents and visitors. Interest among UAE nationals, with notable exceptions, remains minimal.

Few Emiratis, for instance, would recognise the 22-year-old Ahmed Al Musharrekh, the UAE golfer who only last month turned professional and took part in the US$325,000 (Dh1.2 million), six-stage Mena Golf Tour which started in Dubai last week - an event that itself is likely to have passed by most of the local population.

And how many are even aware that the UAE's amateur golfers are the holders of the Arab Games and GCC Championships and are favourites to win November's pan-Arab Championship?

Clearly, it will take several generations for these fledgling individuals and teams to reach international, never mind Ryder Cup, standards. And the environment could not be more favourable.

"For me, the whole idea behind the tour is to have amateurs from this part of the world try and develop," said Mohamed Juma Buamaim, the Mena Tour's chairman. "They are the ones who will encourage more people to take up golf, not the [Tiger] Woods and [Lee] Westwoods."

Whether they will be encouraged sufficiently for golf to challenge the popularity of other sports, not least football, remains to be seen.

But the irresistible drama of this year's Ryder Cup should help raise golf's profile.

Often, when the stakes are extreme and the tension almost unbearable, sporting events suffer as spectacles.

On the other hand, the Ryder Cup never seems to disappoint. As Poulter said, pressure "focuses the mind". Of course, there are always chokes. In the case of the US team on the last day, perhaps a collective loss of nerve. Inspired by Ballesteros, the Europeans, however, refused to be beaten.

In the end, the standard of golf, even to the most casual observer, was astonishing. The 2012 Ryder Cup was pure theatre, sporting drama at its very best. What a shame that so many once again chose to sleep through it.


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