Sowing the seeds for the Shaun Ryder Cup

About 15 years ago I had an infatuation with the game of golf and at the height of my mini obsession some friends and I founded the Shaun Ryder Cup, a competition mimicking the real thing but named after the Happy Mondays singer in an attempt to give it a slightly less stuffy and more irreverant feel.

Naturally I took it all very seriously and insisted my playing partner and I wore matching uniforms – with different outfits for the morning fourballs and afternoon foursomes.

The Shaun Ryder Cup.

The Shaun Ryder Cup.

To prove the old truism that sport doesn’t so much build character as reveal it, I’ll share an anecdote that makes my cheeks flush slightly. Before the inauguaral Shaun Ryder Cup I bought a little cup and took it to one of those key-cutting places to get an engraved plaque put on the base. I kept the trophy hidden in my golf bag to reveal and present to the winning team over a beer in the clubhouse after the match.

My team won the match – possibly thanks to some fairly generous handicapping, I couldn’t say for sure – and so I will never know for certain if I’d have been a good enough loser to present it to the winners had the winners not been me.

The memory of all this came to mind at the weekend because the Ryder Cup was on television and, after a few sleep-deprived nights, I spent quite a lot of time on the sofa watching it.

On Saturday morning, we drove into St Albans for a routine doctor’s appointment and on the way passed 5 Folly Lane, a fairly unremarkable terraced house, albeit one that would probably cost the fat end of six or seven hundred grand these days.

I’ve never been certain whether the house that stands on the site is actually the one Samuel Ryder lived in because it looks a bit too modern, but it is on the site where he lived in the late 19th century and where he started the business that would earn him his fortune which in turn led to the golf tournament that bears his name to this day.

Ryder had the idea of selling penny packets of seeds by mail order so people could grow their own fruit, vegetables and flowers at home, in their gardens or on their allotments. As the business grew, so did Ryder’s stature in the city. By the 1920s, he’d become hooked on the game of golf, joined the Verulam golf club and came up with the idea of a challenge match between the best players in America and the best in Great Britain and Ireland. He commissioned and paid for the famous trophy that is still presented to the winning team today and the first tournament was held in Massachussets in 1927.

If you’re ever in St Albans and fancy lunch you might walk down Holywell Hill to Café Rouge, which is in a striking Art Deco building that used to be more commonly known as Ryder Seed Hall. This was also commissioned and paid for by Ryder and was originally an exhibition hall for the fruits of the company’s seeds. He died in 1936 and is buried in a cemetery in the city.

Despite a few reservations, I love the Ryder Cup. Among the things I don’t like about it are the faux military music that Sky use and the hushed reverential tones the broadcasters and pundits all adopt to describe what is basically just a game of getting a ball in a hole. I also wish there was a rule that meant everyone who shouts ‘get in the hole’ after a tee shot is frog-marched off the course and dunked in sewage as a punishment.

But it is the perfect event for television because there is always something happening, and every shot (more or less) matters. The balance of the game can swing one way then the next so that a comfortable lead can be surrendered in an hour’s play.

It is tempting, in these politically febrile times, to see the clash between the United States and Europe through the prism of Trump and Brexit. I saw a report a few years back that said the majority of players on the USPGA Tour vote Republican. That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise seeing as golf is (broadly speaking) a game that appeals to conservatives with both a big and small C. Trump is a golfer, of course, and it’s interesting that some of his playing companions allege that he is a terrible cheat.

After years getting hammered by the United States (just one win in 18 attempts between 1935 and 1977), Great Britain and Ireland became Europe, broadening the selection criteria and working together to give the Americans a stiffer contest. It tickles me to wonder how many golf club bores – those who have held court on Brexit over a pint in the 19th hole bar for the past couple of years – were cheering on Italy’s Franceso Molinari or Spain’s Sergio Garcia or Jon Rahm or the numerous Scandinavians in the Europe team this weekend. Or perhaps, with confidence swollen by Europe’s successes in the past three decades, they now have a sense that Great Britain and Ireland could go it alone again. Who knows.

From my expert vantage point on the sofa, it seems that the Europeans have a greater sense of team spirit and co-operation. The Americans are a collection of individuals who barely seem to share in each other’s good moments or offer a consoling or encouraging word when things go wrong.

It was quite revealing, in a way. You could almost see the Americans getting frustrated that their combination of big-hitting off the tee and accuracy when playing into the greens was not paying off. Their idea of golf seems to be to reward the two most basic elements of the game – hitting it a long way and stopping the ball where it lands on the green. There’s less room for the unexpected. Creativity, sideways logic and ingenuity seem almost to be considered underhand tactics.

The Ryder Cup was played on a deceptively tricky course near Paris and the Americans failed to adapt their game to the conditions. All weekend the course demanded they hit the fairway but they seemed to favour distance over accuracy. You could almost see them thinking, ‘I hit the ball further than this guy, so I should be winning.’

Dr Bob Rotella wrote a great guide to playing golf called ‘Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect.’ The theme that runs through the whole book is the importance of taking the rough with the smooth and accepting that sometimes a perfectly struck shot will have a bad outcome. The ball may take a funny bounce and end up in the rough or a bunker. The opposite is also true. My own golfing experience tells me that a duffed iron shot that runs along the ground and comes to rest a few feet from the hole may not feel as satisfying as a sweetly struck one that flies through the air and lands delicately but the end result is the same. As they say, there’s no room for pretty pictures on the scorecard.

Rotella’s book is as much a self-help book as a golfing manual. It subtly teaches the reader to change his or her attitude to the game and, perhaps by extension, life. The message is, if you end up stuck behind the trees you can either sulk and whine about it or you can take your medicine and hack back out onto the fairway.

I am – or was – a terrible golfer. I haven’t played for years now but there was a period during which I was seduced by the game’s capricious charms. In that time, I learned a few uncomfortable truths about my own character, especially my inability to cope with injustice on the course, and I could throw the occasional tantrum.

The Shaun Ryder Cup was a short-lived competition – with perhaps three or four editions held over a couple of years. All the games were finely balanced thanks to the handicap system that allows players of different abilities to enjoy a meaningful contest.

It has always fascinated me that such a conservative sport would have adopted what is basically a socialist model – a system that helps the weak to compete against the strong. Drive into the car park at any golf club in Britain and look at the cars and you’ll see evidence of hard-earned and well-enjoyed status. And yet on the golf course the playing field is deliberately levelled for the benefit of all. A poor player enjoying a good day can beat a far superior player who is performing below par and everyone can go home happy.

If you’re wondering what happened to the Shaun Ryder Cup, it lives in a box in a cupboard in my office. When the competition was inaugurated it was decided by the founding fathers that the first winners should keep the trophy on a permanent basis. Naturally.