Golf isn’t the biggest thing in Minnesota right now – that privilege belongs to the knife-edge presidential race – but for this weekend, at least, it will be a close second.
The Hazeltine National is playing host to the 2016 Ryder Cup and while the American fans are busy preparing their ballot papers for Hillary Clinton, the European team will be convening for the first time since Brexit. The Ryder Cup is the only major sporting event that involves Europe playing as a team, as they take on the United States in a series of golfing challenges.
If the event ought to have more symbolic resonance this year, there has been surprisingly little discussion on it. The European team, led by Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke, are getting on with business. Clarke said, earlier this year, that ‘it makes no difference to us whatsoever because the UK is always going to be part of the European continent’. This is a fairly logical answer, given that the event isn’t organised by the EU, and, just like with Eurovision, Britain’s membership is not in jeopardy.
But despite the attempt to paint sport as apolitical, and this year’s tournament as unchanged from previous incarnations, there’s something in the Minnesotan air that seems different. The European team is composed of 7 Brits, 2 Spaniards, a German, a Belgian and a Swede, following the trend of recent Ryder Cups which have been dominated numerically by British golfers. This is not entirely surprising given how quintessentially British golf is. Despite this, the Ryder Cup still carries the flag of the European Union to represent the European team, which might simply be a laziness borne out of the absence of a suitable alternative, or a more fundamental statement about the competition’s ethos.
Founded in 1927, the Ryder Cup is imbued with an interwar pan-Europeanism. Even though it is a competition between European and American teams, it was the Europeans who courted American opposition, and, because of the rarity of a ‘Europe’ team in sport, it feels more like Europe against America than the other way round. But there is no mistaking the fact that the game’s European identity is fractured this year – in the wash of colours at Hazeltine there are flashes of Union Jack livery alongside fluttering EU flags. The United States may be equally divided, but it doesn’t feel so self-conscious.
If the Ryder Cup offered Remainers the chance to show what a unified Europe is capable of, why haven’t they grabbed it? Even among the British players and captains, Remain areas are over-represented. 4 of the 11 Brits come from Northern Ireland or Scotland, perhaps explaining why the EU flag has remained the team’s symbol. Indeed, some Brexiteers have even turned against the European team, and it’s the flag (not to mention the automated EU symbol that pops up on Twitter after #TeamEurope) that really rankles with them. Perhaps in the interests of diplomacy, the losing side in the referendum are not pushing their case too hard.
Despite the apparent harmony in the European camp, the Americans have smelt discord; not amongst the player but amongst the fans. In Friday’s opening foursomes, American fans were reported to have started chanting ‘Brexit! Brexit! Brexit!’ to their European counterparts. Indeed, they even began to use ‘Yeah, Brexit’ as a slur to throw at European players failing to hole their putts. Perhaps this antagonism is a response to Danny Willett’s brother Peter, who referred to American supporters as a ‘baying mob of imbeciles’ in a magazine article last week. But all of this is unlikely to throw professional players off their game (they are, after all, used to the yell of ‘Mashed potato!’ that accompanies tee-shots in the US) but it will divide the crowd.
Because it is golf’s sole major team tournament, the Ryder Cup is the wildest the sport’s fanbase gets. Thrilling finishes like Medinah in 2012 or 1991 in Kiawah Island are greeted by a euphoria without comparison in a fairly reticent sport. 2016 at Hazeltine may come to be known as the ‘Brexit Ryder Cup’, depending on whether the European team survives the pressure exerted by an American squad galvanised in memory of the late Arnold Palmer. But, as it tees off, the conflicts within the European project are being felt in the stands and not on the greens.