You’ll see rancor, maybe a finger-point or a “shush” or two; maybe even another cupped hand to the ear and an “I-can’t-hear-you” jab at the gallery. And you almost certainly will notice conduct from the crowd that you find jarring and out of bounds. It happened at the Solheim Cup a few weeks ago and it will happen at the Ryder Cup this week. Despite both of those professional match-play events taking place in the Midwest, America’s heartland and the “home of nice” as those who live there like to say, the respective competitions bring out a different audience. There are purists, to be sure. But you also get a few who come looking for a UFC brawl.
Match play predates competitive stroke play in our game and, for all its history, it provides the perfect format to those (both inside and outside the ropes) who are prone to histrionics and buffoonery. You’re still not supposed to boo or heckle in golf. But you certainly can go into cartwheels and caterwauling when your guy makes a 12-footer for bogey to win a hole.
But it doesn’t have to be hostile. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Golf should be one activity left in our lives where we don’t go from zero to thermonuclear in the time it takes to read a tweet; the place where you can be a friendly competitor, a hard-fighting gentleperson. The game should remain a sanctuary where decency, at long last, still matters.
If you’ve forgotten what that looks like, we have a model. Last week at the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, two legendary competitors advanced to the final. Ellen Port, looking to capture her eighth USGA championship, took on two-time defending U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur champion Lara Tennant in what was bound to be a knock-down, drag-out match for the ages.
Except it wasn’t. Oh, the golf was fantastic. Tennant won the seesaw match 2-and-1 with a par on the 17th hole at the Lakewood Club in Point Clear, Alabama. But she did it with a smile, just as Port lost with a grin and an “aw-shoot” nod of the head.
“We are really very good friends and have become very close,” Port said of their long-running rivalry. “In fact, we were partners earlier this year in the (U.S. Women’s) Four-Ball Championship. I had been partners with Robin Burke in the past. But with (Robin’s husband) Jack getting older, she didn’t feel like she could get away. So, I was partnerless when Lara called. We didn’t play very well but we had a great time and look forward to doing it again.”
“By the end of the week, counting the final, we played together five times. And every one of them was special. Every round with Ellen is special.”
For this event the friends also played two practice rounds together under the yawning oaks of the Alabama Gulf Coast. And they were paired together in the first 36 holes of stroke-play qualifying.
“By the end of the week, counting the final, we played together five times,” Tennant said. “And every one of them was special. Every round with Ellen is special.”
“We were hoping to get opposite sides of the bracket and when she pulled that No.1 seed and I was the third seed, we were hopeful that good things might come,” Port said. “We knew that it would be really fun to get to the finals. And it was fun. We’ve gotten to the point in the senior (championships) where we’ve all been around so long that we know each other really well. Chances are, if you make it to the finals, you’re going to be playing someone who is a pretty good friend.”
“I was aware that Ellen was going for her eighth championship and she was playing well,” Tennant said. “I knew I had to step up my game to win. But I didn’t really play against Ellen. I played the golf course. I was really able to compartmentalize our friendship from the match and concentrate on playing my own game. I think I’ve been successful in match play because I play it like a stroke-play event. There was only one time (in the finals) when I adjusted my strategy because of Ellen or the situation and that was only a small adjustment. I fixed my game plan and competed against the course.
“When your emotions get involved in any sport, it’s not a great thing. That’s especially true in golf. So, I try to remain level-headed no matter what.”
Level-headed golf might not be fun to watch – fist pumps and running across greens hyping up galleries make for more drama – but when the last putt falls, what happens next? What kind of relationship do players have the week after a contentious Ryder Cup? What is the long-term hangover for the game?
“I don’t like the current trend in the way things have gone,” Port said of the rancor and over-the-top hostility. “I don’t think that is consistent with our game. We had numerous people (in Alabama last week) who commented on how we were playing tough golf but there was a spirit of respect and camaraderie. They noticed. They sensed that we got along, that we’re friends and that we respect each other. That is important, not to that match but to the game overall.”
And how will the two finalists get along going forward?
“We’re playing our practice rounds together next week at the (U.S. Women’s) Mid-Amateur,” Port said. “And in October, we’re qualifying again (as partners) in the Four-Ball.”
“She is so much fun to watch,” Tennant said of Port. “She makes me smile. That’s what I say about Ellen. She always makes me smile.”
Top: Ellen Port and Lara Tennant during the 2021 U.S. Women's Senior Amateur