This was on the second day of the Ryder Cup, when Europe was leading the United States by four points and the American crowd at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., was still relatively calm. Even so, the mood surrounding the match involving Colin Montgomerie, the dour Scotsman who was the leader of the European team, was ugly. Every time Montgomerie stood over a putt, he heard catcalls or profanities. His manhood was questioned; his girth was pointed out constantly.
Montgomerie brings a lot of the abuse on himself. On the golf course he wears a perpetual scowl, and when things go wrong he tends to act like a spoiled 5-year-old. But he had done nothing to deserve the treatment he was receiving -- except play very good golf. As the match went on and Montgomerie backed away from putts because of the noise or glared in the direction of some of his detractors, the heckling worsened.
Finally, as Montgomerie walked off the ninth green, a man no more than a few feet away from him called him a word so disgusting that I reacted instinctively. "Stop it," I said, glaring right at the man, who was about five feet from the gallery rope. I immediately knew I had made a mistake. For one thing, as a reporter, it wasn't my place to police the fans or tell anyone how to act. For another, I put myself in jeopardy, since, in the eyes of most in the crowd, I was siding with the enemy.
As I walked toward the 10th tee, I was treated to a cacophony of profanities. One of the more clever comments was: "You don't like being a [bleep] American, you can go over there with them. See how you like that, you disloyal [bleep]."
At that instant, I would have gladly taken the guy up on the offer.
Sadly, this all began at a moment when being proud to be an American was completely justifiable: Lake Placid in 1980. Those were the Winter Olympic Games when the American hockey team, given absolutely no chance against the vaunted team from the Soviet Union, shocked the world with a 4-3 victory. That was the game that ended with Al Michaels screaming, "Do you believe in miracles!" on ABC-TV while all of America got chills and everyone in the arena -- or so it seemed -- screamed, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" and flags waved everywhere.
The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan, the hostages were still in Iran, and President Jimmy Carter had announced a boycott of the upcoming Summer Olympics in Moscow. It was a grim time, and the victory by a group of fresh-faced college kids over the veteran and seemingly unbeatable Soviets sent the entire country into paroxysms of joy and patriotism.
But there's a line between patriotism and jingoism, and it began to blur during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. That year most of the Eastern Bloc stayed home from the American Olympics in retaliation for the Carter boycott of 1980. As a result, the United States absolutely dominated most of the events. And the "U.S.A." chant echoed all over L.A. for 16 days as ABC's ratings soared.
Nowadays, it seems as if any competition involving country against country is an excuse for rabid behavior. In 1985, the United States lost the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1957 and for only the fourth time in 26 matches. Then, Europe won again in 1987 and did it -- for the first time ever -- on American soil. All of a sudden, the Ryder Cup went from not mattering to anyone but golf fanatics to mattering to millions. By the time the matches came back to the United States in 1991, the flag-waving was almost out of control.
After the U.S. team barely won that year to finally get the Cup back, many American players expressed concern about the behavior of the crowd. Tom Watson, the U.S. captain in 1993, said that players and fans on both sides had gone too far, and it was time to rein in the emotions. He was right, and things did get better -- for a while. But last month, with the United States not having won since Watson's team won in Britain six years ago, American nerves were on a ragged edge.
It was on Sunday, the final day, that things really got out of hand. The crowd behavior was boorish, and when it was over the Europeans were screaming about the crowd and the players, focusing on the Americans' celebration after Justin Leonard's miracle putt on the 17th green in his match against Jose Maria Olazabal. Because the other American players stampeded Leonard after his 45-footer went in, Olazabal had to wait a good three minutes before attempting his putt to keep the United States from clinching the Cup. He missed.
The Americans breached golf etiquette with their premature celebration. But it was a spontaneous moment, an honest mistake. And, to be fair, crowd behavior in Europe in recent years has been less than perfect at times, and the European players often engage in gamesmanship during the matches. Even so, there was no excuse for the way so many fans acted at Brookline.
Enough is enough. If it takes banning alcohol, or zero tolerance for hecklers, or even banning flags, for crying out loud, it's time to end out-of-control jingoism at all sporting events.
I wasn't the only American who felt embarrassed at the Ryder Cup. But I have a feeling far too many Americans didn't feel embarrassed. Which is really too bad.