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What the Ryder Cup Can Teach Us About Politics

It has been said on numerous occasions that sports can be a metaphor for life. If this is true, then witnessing another loss on European soil by the American Ryder Cup team brought some glaring metaphorical lessons to the surface.

Every non-leftist who cares about the continued success and achievement of this land of ours should take a moment to reflect on what can be gleaned from our biennial Ryder Cup drubbing, in a setting that should predict much greater success and much less failure. But it doesn’t. With now predictable regularity we get thumped.  Let me explode some myths and poor reasoning, weak analysis, and outright imbecility that passed for explanations for our failure to win a competition we once dominated.

1)  Americans don’t care about winning the Ryder Cup

This first myth is utter nonsense. Of course they care about winning. For those who did not follow the event (or who do not like golf in general), you are missing one of the truly wonderfully intense and beautiful dramatic stage events available to the viewing public. Filled with passion, intrigue, intensity, and plot twists that Hollywood or Broadway should envy, it is a public spectacle worthy of standing room only, blockbuster status. More lyrical than an opera and more athletic than the ballet, if you love the roller coaster ride of great emotion-evoking theater, then this event is for you. It is unlike any other golfing event.

So to suggest that the American team members are not fully “engaged” or don’t care about their performance is incorrect.

The order of play for the first two days is Foursomes (four groups of two two-man teams) in the morning and Fourball (same) in the afternoon. The final day’s play is in Singles Match format.

In the 2010 competition, the Americans won in the rain soaked first days in Wales to take a 6-4 match lead over the Europeans, only to have a dismal performance in a modified six matches on Sunday. Out of six possible points, they squeaked out a half point, leaving Europe with a 9.5 to 6.5 match lead. This left the U.S.  with a large deficit to overcome on Monday when the 12 singles matches would be played.

With breathtaking drama, it came down to the final match. The American in the last match, Hunter Mahan, came up short against the European Graeme McDowell. McDowell is having the year of his golfing life. He came into the event on form and is a competitor made of stern stuff.

The intense pressure of this competition causes the muscles to tighten and the quick twitch reflexes to get erratic, even for the strongest characters. Mahan, a wonderful ball striker, hit an indifferent tee shot and stubbed his chip shot when he needed to win the last two holes. He lost his match on the second to last hole. He could barely speak after the match. He took the loss so hard, he was reduced to tears. The press took this as the proof that the Americans cared about winning. But this has always been a misread by the press. The Americans always cared.

But the only acceptable way they are allowed to show it is in crushing defeat. More on that later.

2)  The second myth is that the Europeans are better teammates than the Americans.

Esprit de corps missing from the “self-absorbed American millionaires” who care more about their standing on the money list and their endorsement deals than about anything so pedestrian as playing for country, for free. Or so the slander goes.

Yet, again in 2010, the actions of the Americans in coming to the aid and defense of Mahan in his time of need displayed a bond and brotherhood that shattered this stale and wretched lie. The Europeans are not better teammates than the Americans. They are great teammates to be sure, but so are the Americans. There is no discernible difference that explains success or failure here.

3)  The third and final myth is a cosmic joke. The Europeans are better able to handle intense pressure and the Americans crumble under it.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who puts themselves out onto the field and carves out a career at the highest level of achievement in his or her particular arena or endeavor. But Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, and Lee Westwood are three of the most stellar performers in Ryder Cup history. Yet when the pressure to win one of the four majors appeared on their doorstep, history will record a consistent story that is not flattering.  As a matter of  fact, these three indomitable Ryder Cup gods of the greens have been mere mortals, or less, in golf’s four major tournaments (The Masters, US Open, British Open, and PGA Championship).  More strikingly, they are jarringly sparse in wins of any type on American soil. In nearly every event over the past two decades, these three can’t seem to finish off a win here.

So what makes the difference? What explains the phenomenon? And can we learn anything from all this? The answers are there for the taking.

The culture of competition, the narrative, and “horses for courses” explain it all.  And Republicans, Libertarians and independents should take notes.

The Culture of Competition

Somewhere in the past four decades, America began embracing an apology for exceptionalism, an egalitarian neediness for orchestrated results, a rejection of winning, of striving, of competing in general. Little leaguers were told that score doesn’t matter. Wanting to be “better” was a sin. Nobody was “better” than anyone else.

Every possible effort was made to “tone down” the “jock instincts” and soften the “Ugly American” athlete, who was seen as a mouth-breathing bully when he won. Every movie portrayed the athlete as someone who picked on weaker kids, who strutted and intimidated and crowed. It is nonsense now and it was nonsense then. It was a false and phony portrayal by the terminally jealous in order to satisfy their wounded egos. And, by God, it is exactly how non-leftists are portrayed by leftists in the political arena. But it stuck.

In order to combat the false image, the American athlete (except in cultures that get a free pass from leftists) has a reflexive need to “tone down” his competitive fire. A need to “soften” his image.

This comes out in numerous ways, but can be evidenced in many. The Americans will be outfitted in lavender, lilac, and StayPuft Marshmallow men rainsuits because of the need to “soften” their hard- edged image and instincts. It is the sartorial apology for wanting to win before the match even begins.

When one is in abject apology mode, when one tamps down the desire to excel at competition, it lessens the focus, drains the adrenaline, constricts the fire. Not to mention, it would lead the loyal opposition to wonder how they could ever lose to a bunch of “nancy boys.”

If one watched Ian Poulter or Ross Fisher or Edoardo Molinari or even Garcia on the sidelines, the look in their eyes, their gestures, their intensity was on full display. They were spoiling for a fight and wanted to kick ass and take names. The Americans were so muted, their emotions and their fire was so tamped down, they appeared to be taking names at the counter of the DMV.

The Europeans played with a chip on their shoulder, with something to prove. The Americans played with the anchor around their neck, with something to disprove. The Europeans set their jaws for battle. The Americans wanted to be seen as good sports. To dispel the slander. To soften the image.

To not display the “wrong kind” of patriotism, competitiveness, fire in the belly. (There are exceptions — notably Jeff Overton, an Indiana born and bred rookie, who simply didn’t buy into the whole notion of playing Pastel Golf. He was teamed, appropriately, with a bombardier named Bubba Watson. Two rookies put together, because there was no controlling them anyway, so separate them and cut them away from the herd). You know, the Midwest and Southern man is beyond “salvation.” NASCAR and all that.  They don’t “fit” the mold of the “teachable and trainable” who can be made to genuflect at the altar of America in Apology mode.  Zach Johnson from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is another who failed to absorb the “message” of softness and light.

If you compete in sports or in politics in constant apology mode, you should be shocked when you win. You should expect to lose. There is a line across which one becomes rude or obnoxious in victory. That line of sportsmanship should be respected. But if you are not getting your toes right up to that line, if you are holding back your fire, if you are not sending the visceral message of a champion, you are going to come off as a chump. If you spend your time denying that you are exceptional, saying you are no better than anyone else, apologizing for your talents, your skills, and your achievements, you will smother the embers of success.  John McCain ran a campaign in complete and abject apology mode. He was so overly concerned with being seen as having “good sportsmanship” that he failed to fully engage. He was halting, hesitant, distracted, and completely thrown off his game. He got beaten by the narrative and the rigged obstacles against him. This happens to Republicans, Libertarians, and independents, repeatedly.

The Narrative

Much like the 2008 elections for Republicans, the Americans came into the 2010 Ryder Cup completely off their form. Tiger Woods had a year to forget and Phil Mickelson struggled through family health issues that could distract anyone. Steve Stricker was wrestling with a balky putter, ordinarily a weapon of spectacular powers for him. That meant the Number 1, Number 2 and Number 3 players for the American side were off their “A” game when they arrived in Wales.

Wales in October is wet, sloppy, chilly, and dreary. In a good year. The American tour is a nine month race around the country in avoidance of weather. American golf is a power game. Bomb, gouge, and putt.  Therefore, Americans to succeed in Wales need to be able to handle long courses, get the ball in the hole when they miss greens, and putt on fast surfaces.

So what did the Europeans do when setting up the course? They slowed the greens, made the rough nearly impossible to navigate, made the course a ball striker’s safe haven and a pop stroker on the green’s delight.  A “roller” of the ball on the greens was going to come up short nearly every time.

In addition, at one point in the matches, Montgomerie controlled the flow of information. European successes were immediately shown all over the course on the jumbotrons. It would take up to ten minutes for any American successes to be recorded or shown.

By controlling the conditions, by controlling the flow of information, by stacking the deck, one side got all the advantages in emotion, morale, terrain …it was not a level playing field and it was never intended to be a level playing field. Sound familiar to you Republicans, Libertarians, and independents? There exists a 15 percent disadvantage every time you step into a match, because the flow of information is intentionally distorted, morale is attacked, the terrain is riddled with obstacles and favoritism for the other side. In the final tally, if you lose by a single point, how should you describe that defeat? A gallant effort?  A near miss?

It doesn’t happen that way. The narrative is owned by the victors. If you allow the “rigged” elements against you to continue to erode the “even” playing field, you will lose when you should win. Getting honest facts, real “news,” real-time information is mission critical when you are engaged in a competition.  If your opponent is rigging the deck, distorting the news, “massaging” the facts, it will destroy your momentum and break down your coordination of efforts.

You have to be prepared for every cheesy trick, every bit of gamesmanship, every distortion of reality.  If you play nothing but defense, you cannot score. If you are apologizing and allowing a narrative that demeans you to take hold, for which you feel the need to tamp down your competitive fire, you will lose. Having honor and integrity and being a fair competitor is a noble goal. Just remember, when your opponent is rigging the deck against you, you have to be that much better every time you step on the field.

You have to recognize, spotlight, and announce the “rigging.” If you run away from it, think that it’s “impolitic” to mention it, you give it strength. If you say “it doesn’t matter,” you are lying to yourself and everyone around you. Of course it matters. You have to overcome the rigged deck, not pretend that it doesn’t present an extra obstacle.

When you let others define you, you wrestle the alligators in the water. At every step and at every turn you need to wage battle against having your opponent own your narrative. If you spend the entire time saying you are not the “ugly American,” you are not greedy, self-absorbed, uncaring, or jingoistic, you will spend an inordinate amount of time disproving a negative.  Understand, it’s a tactic, not a truth.

Your opponent is defining you in a way to weaken you. To get you off your game. To get in your head. And, if he controls your narrative, he owns you.

Tell your own story.  Be your own person. Own your own narrative. And never, ever, ever sit back and let your opponents cut you off from the truth in real time. Fight that with every fiber of your being.

Horses for Courses

Look, Nancy Pelosi couldn’t get elected in most parts of this country to be in charge of digging up nightworms. She has a national popularity polling figure somewhere between root canal surgery and defrosting the refrigerator. But in her bizarre district, she represents what they are all about, I suppose.

In the Ryder Cup, the setup favors the ball striker. It just does.  Europeans have immaculate ball strikers. Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell, and Luke Donald are all sterling strikers of the ball. Jimenez, as well.  Swashbuckling bombers with spectacular short games get eaten alive when out of position in the Ryder Cup.

It’s funny, but the one thing that got our most swashbuckling player, Phil “The Thrill” Mickelson, to play with focus and intensity was a comment from Johnny Miller that “without a short game, Phil would be selling used cars in San Diego.” Phil took great exception and not just a little bit of umbrage at the notion. And he went out and beat Peter Hanson, a very nice Swede, who was way down the list of European players on this year’s squad. Look, Phil is magical with his short game. Brilliant. Artistic.  Awe inspiring. He does things that are a marvel.  But he plays golf like a teenager in a Lamborghini at times. There’s so much power in the engine, the car is sleek and eye-popping, but the chance of a spin out on the shoulder is just around every bend.

Isn’t it funny how slander and distortion from the other side often gets the ho-hum response of “there they go again,” but an adverse word from the “inside” leaves a welt? Charles Krauthammer and Karl Rove played the Johnny Miller role of pointing at the warts and calling them ugly.  The reaction was visceral. But if it serves to focus the energy, if it puts a chip on the shoulder and gives something to prove the stage, rather than something to disprove, it can be a net positive in the long run.

On paper, Phil Mickelson should beat a Peter Hanson. On paper, Tiger Woods should beat Francesco Molinari. But you don’t play the contests on paper. Or in polls.

On paper our strongest players should be matched against their strongest players. But sometimes life gets in the way.  Sometimes the reality is that our best players are not on their best form or we need someone else to step up this time and take the lead role.

Sometimes we need a change. A spark. Sometimes we need someone to change the paradigm. A new face, with an old attitude.  Someone who is not going to apologize for winning. Someone who is proud to be exceptional and refuses to be “egalitarian” about the result. Who realizes that human achievement is advanced by fair competition and makes no apologies for wanting to be the best.

Hunter Mahan did not lose this Ryder Cup. Far from it.  He was the last man standing on the course for the Americans this year.  When the event comes back to Chicagoland at Medinah in 2012, let’s hope that we learned, finally, that it’s ok to be exceptional.  And to be proud of it. That’s not the “ugly American.” That’s what makes America spectacular.

And every Republican, Libertarian, and independent ought to remember that in November.