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Britons Say Union Yes, if It's to Beat the U.S.

Ryder Cup inspires a kinship with the rest of Europe, which isn't usually the case.

September 22, 2006|Chuck Culpepper | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Today begins the three-day biennial swatch when a 17-inch-tall hunk of hardware puts enough hex on Britons that many feel at least somewhat and momentarily European.

It's odd.

Show the four-pound Ryder Cup trophy with the storied English golfer Abe Mitchell's likeness atop, then show a band of uppity Americans trying to snatch it away from the team titled "Europe," and the United Kingdom no longer seems separated from the European continent by an English Channel and a heap of sovereign sentiment.

They don't go so far as advocating the euro as currency over the deathless pound, but as Graham Sharpe explained, "We're only European for three or four days. The rest of the year, I'm not even British, I'm English. Then, every four years, for the Olympics, I become British again."

Then, every other September, he becomes European, his identity for today and Saturday and Sunday no matter how it plays upon the profits for the William Hill wagering chain, for which he works as spokesman.

Put a Ryder Cup on the telly, and even Nigel Farage starts rooting for "Europe" from his home in Kent. That qualifies as something else because Farage, an English member of the European Parliament, also just was elected head of the U.K. Independence Party, which formed in 1993 with the platform of, well, withdrawal from the European Union.

Reached on his mobile phone in the European Union capital of Brussels on Wednesday, Farage, 42, said, "Yes, I am right in the heart of the evil empire as we speak," whereupon he guffawed.

He referred to E.U.'s "disgusting blue flag with the 12 stars" -- and guffawed again -- and said he had nothing against French or Spanish golfers or citizens, "I just object to a set of institutions in Brussels who have invented their own flag."

He did not guffaw then, but said, "What I object to viciously is the fact the EU flag is displayed as the team colors of the Ryder Cup team."

"Have I been blunt enough?" he said moments later, guffawing again.

Yet while this former keen amateur golfer prefers the Walker Cup, the amateur U.S. vs. Great Britain-Ireland competition "where we now whomp the Americans once every two years," he anticipated a spellbound TV weekend, pulling for "the European Tour."

"But every time I see that bloody flag, I shall curse," he said, expecting his four children will say Dad's gone around the bend with that flag thing again.

Dad's "European Tour" team includes four players from England, one from Scotland, one from Northern Ireland, two from Ireland, two from Spain and two from Sweden, and all their flags -- plus the blue flag with the 12 stars -- adorn the Dunvegan Hotel pub up in St. Andrews, Scotland, hallowed ancestral home of golf.

There, two Septembers back, about 150 patrons watched in European unity as Europe routed the U.S. in the Ryder Cup at Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Whenever a European lined up a crucial putt 3,500 miles away, pub workers held up the same "Quiet" signs the marshals hold up on tournament courses.

Whenever Scotland's Colin Montgomerie sank a big putt, they played "Scotland, the Brave" on the CD player.

When Montgomerie's clinching putt finished off the helpless Americans, the patrons locked arms and swayed to "We Are the Champions," that song penned by the late Zanzibar-born Englishman, Freddie Mercury.

"Electric. People were screaming," said Sheena Willoughby, a Scotswoman who owns the hotel with her Texan husband, Jack.

"You look at the European flag," she said, "and it doesn't really get the hairs on the neck standing up."

But still, "if it was Monty or Lee Westwood [of England], to all of us watching up here in Scotland, whether it was Sergio [Garcia, of Spain], or Olazabal [Jose Maria, of Spain] or Karlsson [Robert, of Sweden], it wouldn't matter one bit."

In fact, she said, the daydream swirling around the pub stars Darren Clarke, newly and agonizingly widowed, holing a winning putt.

Clarke hails from Northern Ireland, and soccer fans and historians might say the Scots and Irish have had their moments.

"I think it would just be monumental," Sheena Willoughby said.

As for moments, the serial snits between U.K. and the continent trace to post-World War II, and Simon Bulmer, professor of politics at the University of Manchester and golf fan, can explain them concisely:

Sovereignty with coal and steel industries, British post-war elite status as saved European nations started banding, French snubs, the oil crisis that cropped up after the U.K. joined the E.U. in 1973, Margaret Thatcher famously saying, "I want my money back," the wish to control one's own country, traditionalism ... all fed a school of thought familiar as "Euro-skeptic."

"There are very strong attachments to symbols of national identity, like the pound," Bulmer said.

That's odd in this week during which many a pound has gone unattached from Britons betting on favored Europe as an act of, yep, patriotism.

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