Cup could be state's signature moment

When Tiger Woods outlasted Bob May in a playoff to win the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, it was one of the biggest and most memorable sports events in state history.

But it could be topped this week by the Ryder Cup.

If the United States ends Europe's recent domination of the biennial match-play rivalry, and if home-grown stars Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes contribute to the victory, the 37th Ryder Cup will qualify as one of the signature moments in the annals of Kentucky sports.

The Ryder Cup is that big of a deal, and not just here in the Bluegrass State.

The matches will be televised live in more than 150 countries.

"In terms of making an international impression, this is the biggest event there's ever been in Kentucky," said sports marketing guru Jim Host. "Interest in the Ryder Cup worldwide is immense.

"I look at it the way I do the Olympics. People who don't care anything about swimming will watch it in the Olympics with great interest. You'll have people interested in the Ryder Cup who normally don't care anything about golf."

It wasn't always so.

Even die-hard golf fans didn't get stirred up about the Ryder Cup when the United States was winning it 20 of 21 times from 1935 to 1983.

Everything changed when the Europeans routed the Americans at The Belfry in England in 1985.

That victory signaled a new world order in golf.

The Europeans come to Louisville having won five of the last six Ryder Cup titles, including three in a row. Europe embarrassed the Americans with blowout victories in 2004 and '06.

Americans don't like getting pushed around, especially when their adversaries take obvious delight in roughing up the red, white and blue.

"People love to watch the Ryder Cup because of pride in their country," Host said. "It's the USA versus Europe, and that competitive aspect is what makes it so interesting."

But is the Ryder Cup bigger than the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA Championship?

"It's absolutely bigger than the four majors," Ryder Cup director Tara Guenthner said.

"Golfers playing as a team, with pride for their countries, takes it to another level of importance. It creates the most dramatic, spirited event in golf."

Tiger Woods, whose single-minded mission in golf is to win majors, might disagree. But he is injured and won't play at Valhalla.

There's no doubt that Perry considers the Ryder Cup the ultimate competition. Making the team and playing for the USA on his home turf was his top priority this year.

"This is kind of a Super Bowl event," he said. "The Ryder Cup is the pinnacle of golf. We play for no money; we play for pride. It's just awesome to represent my home state and showcase Valhalla in front of the world."

There's no question Kentucky will get lots of attention this week. About 1,600 media credentials were issued for the Ryder Cup, almost a third of those going to media from foreign countries.

The Kentucky Derby issued about 2,000 credentials this year, but only a handful went to foreign media.

"The Ryder Cup is a very big deal, but in my mind, I don't think anything in Kentucky surpasses the Derby as a big deal," said Lexington Legends president Alan Stein, who keeps the pulse of sports in the state.

"The World Equestrian Games (coming to Lexington in 2010) are going to cater to a different group of folks, but it'll be just as big as the Ryder Cup."

For a golf event, though, this week tops the charts.

"It's the biggest golf event in Kentucky history," said Mark Hill, executive director of the Kentucky PGA and Kentucky Golf Association.

"With all due respect to the PGA Championship, the Ryder Cup is probably the biggest event in golf, and one of the biggest events in sports.

"The eyes of the world are going to be on it."

And the ears of the world will be listening. "With TV commentators having conversation about Kentucky, the promotional value for our state internationally is going to be huge," Host said.

Attendance at Valhalla is expected to be about 40,000 each day, and most of the crowd is expected to be loud and boisterous in support of the United States with fans from Kentucky wearing out their lungs for Perry and Holmes.

If the Americans play well and give the favored Europeans a run for the Cup, it will be, in Perry's words, a "scrapbook week."

But what if Europe spoils the party?

That's what happened when the Ryder Cup was held in Detroit in 2004. Pat Croswell, the head pro at Oakland Hills, remembered that the Europeans built a commanding lead on Saturday, "and that put a real damper on things on Sunday."

Perry was there and had the same recollections.

"There was no noise on the golf course; it was terrible." Perry said. "The USA crowd was taken right out of it."

U.S. captain Paul Azinger thinks Valhalla is the perfect place for the Americans to get back on track.

"If I could handpick any place in the country, this would probably be the spot," he said on Monday. "I think (the fans) will be behind us.

"The message to the crowd is to be enthusiastic, raucous, crazy if you like, but keep it all within the realm of good sportsmanship."

Perry expects the crowd to be an intimidating factor. "I think the Europeans are going be stunned at the amount of support we'll have," he said.

And if the United States does prevail, the sun will be shining bright on our old Kentucky home.


Europe vs. United States

When: Friday through Sunday

Tickets: Sold out

Where: Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville