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BILL DWYRE

There's nothing like Ryder Cup pressure

No one's getting tackled at Medinah, but playing golf for your country (or continent) does strange things to the nerves.

Bill Dwyre

9:45 PM EDT, September 27, 2012

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This weekend brings a sharp contrast in sports fan viewing. Think of it as the concussive versus the cerebral.

Across the country, NFL fans will be relieved at the departure of replacement refs. It will be a time to get back to business as usual — sanctioned violence. An example: A quarterback was hit so hard last weekend that he lost part of his ear. From the distance, we hear Jim Healy's voice saying: "We don't make 'em up, pally."

Pressure in the NFL will be intense. Who will get the big hit this weekend and get prime time on "SportsCenter"?

In the center of the country, near Chicago, there will be a walk in a park at a place called Medinah Country Club. They will play the 39th Ryder Cup of golf there, and it is guaranteed that all 48 ears of the competitors will leave intact. That's assuming, of course, that Mike Tyson isn't in the gallery.

The contrast in viewing choices is clear. It is physical mayhem versus mental mayhem. Sports fans get to pick their poison.

But do not assume that the golfers have the easier deal, even though nobody will be tackling them or removing pieces from their ear.

Paul Azinger, a former PGA champion and somewhat controversial figure over the years in Ryder Cup play, said recently that the mental part was so tough that few golfers will win major titles before they participate in a Ryder Cup. After a Ryder Cup, they are ready.

"It's one of the greatest, most fearful stages you can be on," Azinger said. "It's a scary place."

Lanny Wadkins, also a PGA winner and a nine-time Ryder Cup player, said on the same show, "I never played the Ryder Cup happy."

This has become a big deal to American fans — not just American golf fans — because they have lost something they used to take for granted. That would be winning the Ryder Cup. Europe has won six of the last eight and nine of the last 13 biennial competitions.

This all started in 1927, when a man named Samuel Ryder donated a cute little trophy for some international golf competition between the U.S. and Great Britain. From 1959 through 1983, the U.S. never lost. That's 12 wins and one cup-retaining tie. U.S. sports fans knew a bully when they saw one, even if it was one of their own. And so the Ryder Cup came and went amid yawns.

But then the competition opened up to all of Europe, and along came some feisty continental teams, sparked to duty by the most feisty of them all, Spain's late and great Seve Ballesteros. It was game on.

The early history of the Ryder Cup lived off moments such as the sportsmanship of Jack Nicklaus, who conceded a not-quite-gimme putt to England's Tony Jacklin on the 18th hole in 1969, on English soil. That gave Europe a tie in the final score, but allowed the U.S. to retain the cup it had won in 1967.

Since then, as the pressure to win has built, it has gotten chippier. Azinger and Ballesteros quibbled over silly rules in 1989. That heated up even more in 1991, when the Ryder Cup was played at Kiawah Island, S.C. TV has now christened that "The War at the Shore." There was also the excessive U.S. celebration on the green at Brookline, Mass., in 1999, when Justin Leonard rolled in a 45-foot putt. That brought angry European reaction.

Standing on that green during the celebration for Leonard was Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, who was mentored in both golf and temperament by Ballesteros. He still had to putt and could have tied. He missed and U.S. players and fans celebrated again.

This year's European captain, facing Davis Love III of the U.S., is Olazabal. In interviews leading up to this weekend's cup, his jaw has been hard set and his eyes gleam at mentions of Ballesteros. This year's European team will carry bags sporting silhouettes of Ballesteros in his magic moment winning the British Open at St. Andrews in 1984. That's about a subtle as a pitching wedge to the shin.

The last Ryder Cup in Wales in 2010 was right in line with what this event has become.

It was played in weather so bad that it made Portland and Seattle look like deserts. If Kiawah Island was "The War at the Shore," this was "The Mess in the Mud." The only thing missing was Noah and his ark.

It ended on Monday, a day behind schedule, and the U.S. put on a rally in singles that accelerated the pressure and drama. Hunter Mahan drew the short straw and was sent out in the last match against Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, who was having a career year. At the end, McDowell caressed in an 18-foot downhill birdie putt to win the 16th hole and Mahan chunked a short chip on No. 17. Humans make that McDowell putt once in 100. By then, the pressure had steam coming out of everybody's pores, including the fans.

Last weekend, most of these guys were playing for a chance to win $11.4 million. Brandt Snedeker did that by taking the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup with it. This weekend, the purse is zero and the tension is double.

Silky swings will disintegrate into Charles Barkley hitches. Automatic 130-yard wedges will become torture.

Unlike the body parts left behind in the NFL, the Ryder Cup sheddings will be indiscernible. They are called brain cells.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com