2001: The Cup that wasn’t ...

Sutton Coldfield, England

Graham Bishop was exactly where he expected to be at 8 a.m. on Sept. 28 – at the first tee on The Belfry’s Brabazon Course. What the 26-year-old stockbroker didn’t expect was that he would be waiting to tee off.

And he could never have guessed that the name after his on the start sheet belonged to a Mr. Harrington from Dublin. Talk about an unreal experience.

“The whole thing is just amazing,” Bishop said before teeing off. “Can you imagine the odds I would have got if I’d walked into a bookie six months ago and asked what price they’d have given me to be teeing off at The Belfry at 8 a.m. on Friday the 28th of September? The odds would have been astronomical.”

Bishop looked the part as he stood on the first tee gazing at an immaculately prepared course: trendy wrap-around shades perched on top of his head, black and white golf shoes, gray slacks and red golf shirt. Not quite David Duval, perhaps a closer resemblance to Jim Furyk, albeit with a better looking, though not quite as effective, golf swing.

All around Bishop was the noise of construction workers dismantling signs and hospitality tents. Across the lake at 18 stood the huge scoreboard that should have read “Welcome to the 34th Ryder Cup.” Instead, all that could be seen was the metal support frame, a dreary reminder that the United States vs. Europe match that was to have started here on this day was postponed in the aftermath of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

But the suspension of Cup play had an upside for Bishop and his three partners, who had planned to attend the matches as spectators and now found themselves, through a series of unbelievable events, on the No. 1 tee in a less-than-tranquil environment.

“If I top my drive, do I get to hit another ball?” Bishop asked. “Can we agree to mulligans?”

No was the answer to both. Bishop, a 21.2 handicapper from Mayland Golf Club in Brentwood, Essex, didn’t top his drive. He sliced it into the trees.

“We had tickets for the Cup, but when it was postponed because of the terrorist attacks in America we rang the course and asked for a tee time,” Bishop said. “They said it was £120 ($176 U.S.) each for a round and told us we could play today. We set off from home at 4:30 a.m., and when we got here we were told we were first off at the first hole. My friends had to pick me up off the floor.”

Bishop and his brother Steve traveled from Essex along with friends Richard Caley and Stephen Pearce. Although each had shelled out £250 ($367 U.S.) for tickets to the three-day match, no one minded spending the extra £120 for the chance to play the Ryder Cup course.

At least the first three players managed to get their balls airborne. Not Pearce though. He did top his tee shot. His ball failed to make the ladies tee markers, and his three friends tried to invoke the universal rule. “Come on, get them down,” Graham said, indicating Pearce’s trousers. “You know the rule.”

Pearce was having none of it, not with a professional photographer standing nearby. Take away the grandstands, the hotel, and the rest of the surroundings and the four guys could well have been playing a weekend bounce game back in Essex.

For the record, Bishop made a bogey 5 on the opening hole. Steve, a 14 handicapper, made par, while Caley and Pearce, 22 handicappers, made a bogey and triple bogey, respectively.

Bishop and his buddies weren’t the only Ryder Cup ticket holders to take advantage of the postponement. Another 124 golfers showed up for the 8 a.m., shotgun start Friday. Included was PGA European Tour professional Gary Evans, who decided to use the course to entertain sponsors. Evans played in Thursday’s 1:30 p.m. shotgun start and at 8 a.m. on the following day. “This is probably the closest I’ll ever get to playing in the Ryder Cup,” Evans quipped the night before in the hotel bar.

Another 32 groups teed off at 1:30 p.m. Friday, also in a shotgun start. Rather than sitting empty, The Belfry was busy for the two weeks after the postponement was announced. As soon as the Ryder Cup was called off Sept. 16, the Birmingham course was inundated with calls from ordinary golfers trying to get a round on the host site. There was no trouble getting 64 groups each day for the two starting times.

Behind Bishop’s group were the Harrington brothers, Liam and Eugene. Their four-ball was almost too good to be true: they just happened to be paired with two Americans.

The Harringtons were originally supposed to be at The Belfry on the Cup’s opening day to cheer on the Irish trio of Paul McGinley, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington. But especially Padraig, who happens to be a second cousin of the brothers.

“We were hoping we might be a bit famous this week, since we are related to Padraig,” said Eugene, an electrical contractor in Dublin. “We thought that might have got us a few jars in the bar. Oh well, we’ll just have to use that line next year.”

The Harringtons, both 18 handicappers, were at The Belfry courtesy of Liam’s wife. “The missus bought me two tickets for Eugene and I as a Christmas present,” Liam said. “When it got postponed we decided we’d come for a round. I think, though, it’s fair to say we don’t play anything like our cousin. But then we’re not sure he’s playing the same game as us anyway”.

Playing with the Harrington brothers were Tom and Luan Jackson from Lapeer, Mich.. In addition to the tickets for the Cup matches, the American couple had hired a canal boat near Stratford-upon-Avon for the week. Friends and relatives thought they were crazy to not cancel the trip.

“People tried to talk us out of coming here, but contrary to what everybody else feels, I figure this is as safe a time to travel as any time because the security is now so much tighter,” said Tom Jackson, a 12 handicapper. “Sure we’re disappointed we couldn’t watch the match, but every cloud really has a silver lining. If the match had been played, then we wouldn’t have had the chance to play this fantastic golf course. Besides that we got to stay in the hotel (The De Vere Belfry) last night, and we wouldn’t have done that either if the match had been on.”

The Jacksons were determined to be back for the matches next year, so too were the Harringtons. And Graham Bishop had no doubt where he’d be at 8 a.m. on Sept. 27, 2002. “I’ll be on the first tee,” said Graham. “But I don’t think I’ll be the first to drive off next year. Just as well after my tee shot today.”

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