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Ryder Cup 2012: Chicago bearpit is America"s 13th man – Martin Samuel

Hope you packed earplugs! Chicago bearpit is America's 13th man

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UPDATED:

22:00 GMT, 27 September 2012

A critical hole, Phil Mickelson called the 17th at course three, Medinah Country Club. He said its amphitheatre effect gave it a special significance. ‘You can really feel it as you play,’ he added.

And the United States will be hoping to feel it at Medinah this week, particularly on Sunday when the Ryder Cup hits its peak. They will be hoping to feel it from a breed known as the Chicago sports fans, much ballyhooed around these parts.

Just about every American player who has trooped through the media tent this week has fielded a question about the frenzy of the local support. Even Luke Donald, an Illinois resident for 15 years, was asked to characterise what makes a Chicago sports enthusiast special.

Patriot: An American golf fan watches play during Thursday's practice round ahead of the Ryder Cup

Patriot: An American golf fan watches play during Thursday's practice round ahead of the Ryder Cup

So notorious is this fervour that Saturday Night Live had a recurring sketch about it. Bill Swerski’s Superfans ran for two seasons, 1991 and 1992, and typically featured a group of blowhard Chicagoans gathered in the sports bar run by Mike Ditka, legendary coach of the Chicago Bears NFL franchise. They would gorge, smoke, drink and predict outlandishly huge victories for their favourite sports teams.

Skits had them discussing who would win out of Ditka and a hurricane (Ditka, unless the hurricane in question was Hurricane Ditka) or how many points Michael Jordan would score for the Chicago Bulls if he played the entire game alone, on a recliner (he might be kept to under 200).

The dialogue would invariably end in a heart attack caused by the over-consumption of Polish sausage — pronounced sassage — or a toast to ‘Da Bears’ or ‘Da Bulls’. All around the table wore dark sunglasses and thick moustaches, like Ditka.

On Sunday, the uniform is intended to be red, as the PGA of America implore those attending Medinah to show their support for the home team. Be our 13th man, is the instruction. Chicago sports fans will need every last drop of energy, however, if they are to drag this American Ryder Cup team over the line. For those sitting at the back of that critical 17th watching practice rounds on Wednesday, the home team were offering very little to paint the town red about.

Long before a hapless flunky had managed to roll the team buggy down a steep slope, there was disquiet in the bleachers. The 17th is a 193-yard par three across water, and, although no player got wet, not enough hit the green for the comfort of the home crowd, not even Tiger Woods. From the 12th hole, water is a feature at Medinah, with the 13th and 15th, in particular, offering the risk-reward combination that makes for thrilling matchplay.

Watery grave: The hazard by the seventeenth green could claim some high-profile victims this week

Watery grave: The hazard by the seventeenth green could claim some high-profile victims this week

‘The 13th will be vital momentum-wise as you’re heading down the stretch,’ said Mickelson. ‘My take on the 15th is that it is an easy birdie laying up, but while it is technically reachable from the tee, it is really not possible to drive. As disappointing as it will be for fans, we have to play what’s in front of us, and the lowest score will be the shot laying up.’

Desperate measures, however, may dictate otherwise. An impending defeat might inspire one last bid for glory. Here’s Bubba Watson on the same dilemma: ‘With my four-wood, depending on wind conditions, I can reach the 15th. There are a lot of factors that go on with that: wind, pin location, how I’m hitting that day, where we are in our match. They will all determine what goes on at that moment.’

Also by then, the boisterous mood may be pulling the participants in some strange directions, not least as cold canned beer was being sold even in the stands during practice rounds, just as it is in American sports arenas. Vendors walked with the supplies in cooler trays hung from the neck. ‘Beer man here!’

Lee Westwood says he was pursued by a supporter dressed as a ghost at Valhalla in 2008, the last time America won. ‘He kept jumping out and shouting “Boo!”,’ he recalled. Chicago’s sports fans are unlikely to be more refined, or even as subtle.

The players’ reaction to that could cut either way, of course. The eyes of Davis Love, America’s captain, filled with tears as he answered a mundane question concerning Mickelson two days ago, and Watson — known as Blubba after breaking down on winning this year’s Masters — admits he has already shed tears during practice rounds.

Inspired: Phil Mickelson (left) says he is relishing the atmosphere at Medinah Country Club

Inspired: Phil Mickelson (left) says he is relishing the atmosphere at Medinah Country Club

‘The first day going up on the first tee, I had a pretty big roar, and that was special to know that the crowd was behind us, behind me,’ he said. ‘It was an honour and I might have teared up a little bit, but nobody noticed, so it was good.

‘It’s just that trophy. It’s funny, it’s just that little trophy we want to win so bad. And it’s the United States flag. The military wears that flag everywhere they go; they give us the freedom to play golf, to play the Ryder Cup. People I’ve never met fight for our freedom, so I hope to hit some good shots for them.

‘I haven’t been in the military and unless there’s a draft I’m not going to be, so this is the one chance I get to represent our country and, I hope, represent it well. The passion comes from that. All the people that pull for me, even the ones who don’t like me in the US — now they cheer for me in this one event.’

Yet does America care as much as Bubba When the Chicago Tribune wrote last year of the city’s drive to attract more visitors, the prospect of hosting the Ryder Cup north-west of downtown did not rate a mention beside the G8 and NATO summits that took place in May. Nor is the city alive with Ryder Cup fervour. Sports talk here still centres on the NFL and the prospect of the Chicago White Sox reaching baseball’s post season.

Spooky: Lee Westwood (right) says he was pursued by a spectator dressed as a ghost at Valhalla in 2008

Spooky: Lee Westwood (right) says he was pursued by a spectator dressed as a ghost at Valhalla in 2008

So if the Ryder Cup has wider importance it is that it engages America in team competition against the rest of the world. The Olympics aside, that does not happen too often. FIFA are doing their best but the progress of US soccer players in the World Cup is hardly headline news back home. America still engages on its own terms: sending NFL teams to play a one-off fixture at Wembley rather than nurturing a global contest; calling a domestic baseball competition the World Series. The growth of the Ryder Cup, therefore, is uncharted territory.

‘It seems like each two years everything doubles,’ said captain Love. ‘The people watching, the number of cameras. Our country has caught on, thanks to Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer, really. It’s like the America’s Cup yacht races — I never heard too much about them, until we started losing. Then everybody got real interested. The PGA was having a tough time selling the Ryder Cup, but those guys made it something America is now passionate about.

‘There are golf fans who don’t know much but the Ryder Cup. We just went through an Olympics, and this is our Olympics. People realise our team is going up against an unbelievable team from Europe, and they want to see what happens.’

Bill Swerski’s Superfans would at this point predict a United States victory, 29-0, with Mike Ditka carding 52 while playing with a billiard cue, but realistically this should be another European win. It may, however, need steely resolve and a set of ear plugs.

‘Walking to the first tee on Tuesday, I knew we weren’t in Wales any more,’ said Matt Kuchar. ‘There was such an eruption of excitement when we got to there: it was an awesome feeling being on home turf.’

A Golf Channel poll, however, has 71 per cent of voters making America the underdogs. Whether Medinah can be another Valhalla for the men in red may well be out of the hands of Chicago’s sports fans.

Wimbledon 2012 Brian Baker goes from hit-and-giggle on grass to last 16

Baker goes from hit-and-giggle on grass to Wimbledon last 16 as fairytale continues

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UPDATED:

17:09 GMT, 30 June 2012

Brian Baker has gone from playing 'hit-and-giggle' grass-court tennis with friends to amazing his family and the wider sporting world by reaching the last 16 at Wimbledon.

The 27-year-old was unranked just a year ago, a once leading junior whose hopes of a career in the game had been seemingly ruined by a succession of injuries.

But having undergone a succession of operations, Baker gave it one last shot, and beat France's Benoit Paire 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 to reach the fourth round of the world's most famous grand slam.

Wonderful week: Baker

Wonderful week: Baker

Fortunately his family have already extended their stay in London to include Monday, when he will face 27th seed Philipp Kohlschreiber for a place in the quarter-finals.

'I think they had to change their flights twice, they weren't that confident in me starting out,' said Baker, smiling.

'I was just excited that they were able to come back over. They came over for the French Open, so it's nice to see my dad was able to take time off work again.

'It makes it a lot more special to be able to share it with my family and girlfriend than it is if you're just doing it on your own.'

Baker's comeback began on the golf course last summer.

That was when the Nashville resident found out he had been given a wild card into a Futures tournament in Pittsburgh, only his third event since 2005. Not only did he qualify, he won the tournament.

The former French Open boys' finalist has said repeatedly that he never doubted his ability, and he really came back onto the radar when he won a Challenger tournament in April that earned him a wild card into the French Open.

A week before Roland Garros he qualified for his first ATP World Tour event in almost seven years, in Nice, and then beat the likes of Gael Monfils and Nikolay Davydenko to reach the final.

There were calls for Baker to be given a wild card for Wimbledon, but now he is through to the last 16, the American is grateful that did not happen.

He said: 'I wasn't that disappointed that I didn't get one. I needed the match practice on the courts. My only grass-court match was at Queen's qualifying and I lost. I didn't feel I was comfortable on the stuff.

'There's actually two grass courts at the club where I grew up at back in Nashville. I think I once played hit-and-giggle tennis on that. I played a pro-am doubles tournament up in the Hamptons with a buddy from Nashville on grass.

Into the second week: Baker will play Phillip Kohlschreiber in the last 16

Into the second week: Baker will play Phillip Kohlschreiber in the last 16

'But those courts are nothing compared to these. They're a lot softer. It had been seven years since I played on a similar style grass court.'

Baker's victory today, over an opponent who badly lost his cool in the third and fourth sets, ensures he will break into the top 100 for the first time in his career.

Asked if he still has to pinch himself, Baker said: 'I'm sure I will. It's been unreal. When I'm on the court I know I definitely have nerves. Closing out the match you definitely know what's on the table, what you can accomplish.

'I missed a few shots at the end that I probably wouldn't miss if it was the quarters of a Challenger and not trying to get to the round of 16 at Wimbledon.

'It is crazy, what's going on. But I'm still trying to stay focused on the task at hand and not get too wrapped up in it.

'Because once you do that, I think it's tough to be able to play your best tennis once you're happy that you've been there.

'So I'm trying every match to go in there hungry and try to win the next one instead of thinking, “I'm in the round of 16 of Wimbledon, this is awesome”.'

Joey Barton on Twitter

How will football cope without the spiteful rants of this humourless, angry little man

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UPDATED:

21:35 GMT, 26 March 2012

Some joyous news from Queens Park Rangers this week, amid the gloom of a relegation battle.

After being booed off by his own fans before his team-mates staged a remarkable comeback against Liverpool, then dropped for the 3-1 defeat by Sunderland on Saturday, Joey Barton has decided to take a ‘little Twitter sabbatical’.

The midfielder tells us he is anxious to avoid saying something he’ll ‘end up regretting’. Presumably he didn’t intend this to be a joke, but it is very funny. After 4,598 tweets it’s a bit late for that, Joseph.

Shouting his mouth off: Joey Barton has earned a reputation for making his voice heard on Twitter

Shouting his mouth off: Joey Barton has earned a reputation for making his voice heard on Twitter

We shall miss him, of course. We will pine for the incessant, sanctimonious musings of Twitter’s self-appointed sage. As Lent draws to a close, it is we who will be cast out into the wilderness without football’s unofficial spokesman and resident philosopher to show us the light.

Will the game be able to cope without born-again Barton taking a sip from his cappuccino and casting judgment on the burning issues of the day, trampling over those who disagree and basking in the unashamedly ego-stroking nonsense of it all We may not function properly without our all-seeing overlord.

In his attack on the media, published in The Times this year, a comically oblivious Barton wrote: ‘This is the medium of Generation Y, the kids today that will become tomorrow’s leaders. These are my people… I want to be one of them.’

It was a statement of such misguided arrogance it would have been amusing if it wasn’t so scary. Joey Barton, a convicted thug, the spokesman for my generation What a depressing thought. This is a man who wants desperately to be a football thinker, a voice of authority who speaks and people listen. But, instead of replicating the enigmatic brilliance of Eric Cantona, another footballer with a violent past, he is often just Vinnie Jones with Wi-Fi.

Benched: Barton has struggled for form in recent weeks and was booed by QPR fans against Liverpool

Benched: Barton has struggled for form in recent weeks and was booed by QPR fans against Liverpool

Enlarge

Joey Barton Twitter

Barton has tried hard, too hard, to shed the skin of the man who stabbed a lit cigar into a team-mate’s face at a Christmas party, served 74 days in Manchester’s Strangeways prison for assault and left another team-mate unconscious after a training-ground attack. The fact we still give his opinions credence is itself remarkable, but also a testament to his intelligence, determination and sheer gall. But, even today, it still takes more than a username, a password and a BlackBerry to change the world — and the world’s perception of you.

He wrote in The Times: ‘Last year I realised no journalist was going to tell my tale truthfully. So I’m doing it myself. Anything I said, anything I did, was given an angle to fit in with the bad-boy image.

‘They projected someone who was not the real me: it was the “me” that the press wanted to project. People are now beginning to see the man I am.’

Are we, though Is anyone capable of reflecting the ‘real me’ in 140 characters It is doubtful. The ‘virtual’ Barton is a different beast to the one described by those who know him well.

‘Generous’, ‘thoughtful’ and ‘good fun’ were just some of the words associated with a man capable of committing little acts of kindness — a round of golf here, a bottle of champagne there — without ego or ceremony. This is so far removed from the angry, humourless little man behind @Joey7Barton that it was hard to imagine we were talking about the same person.

Yet he is a Premier League footballer
who contributes a column to The Big Issue and a Liverpool-born athlete
who has used his 1.3million Twitter followers to campaign passionately
for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. He is the
capitalist with a conscience: the man who swapped a 170,000 Aston
Martin DBS for a Toyota Prius, a moped and an Oyster card, allowing him
to travel on London’s Underground network concealed by a pair of Harry
Potter glasses and a hat. He wears a 6 plastic watch instead of
500,000 of designer bling.

In action: Barton was named QPR captain after his move from Newcastle last summer

In action: Barton was named QPR captain after his move from Newcastle last summer

But, just as the newspaper interviews to which Barton now seems to object reflected journalists’ interpretations of the man, his Tweets project their own self-portrait.

He may decry the ‘bad-boy image’ he considers a media fabrication, but he repeatedly enhances that negative persona. If you do not like what you read in the papers it will always be somebody else’s fault, but you have no excuse if you actively celebrate the fact it is you, unfiltered, behind the Twitter avatar.

The result is certainly not pleasant. Barton comes across as a mean, dislikeable individual; the classic playground bully who revels in snide ripostes and stamping on those with a lower profile — simply because he can.

His tweets come like bullets, one after the other. He doesn’t interact; he just spews vitriol on the screen whenever he feels like it. ‘He tweets when he wants,’ sang the QPR fans. Don’t we just know it.

Barton’s behaviour was particularly
despicable when he insulted Neil Warnock earlier this year. The former
QPR boss said owner Tony Fernandes had been ‘slowly poisoned from
outside the club and no doubt from within the club as well’. Barton
responded by telling Warnock to ‘shut it’, calling him ‘embarrassing’
and comparing him to Mike Bassett, a fictional football manager and a
figure of fun.

Joey Barton

Joey Barton

Court dates: Barton was in trouble with the law during his spells with Manchester City and Newcastle

‘If I talked about Neil, he’d do well to get another job,’ added the player Warnock made captain of QPR after Newcastle United were so desperate to get rid of him they let him leave for free.

It was unprofessional and smacked of ingratitude, but it was typical of the way Barton responds to those who hit back. He simply dismisses them with utter contempt.

‘I don’t want or need ur advice, praise, negativity…or any other thing that u offer,’ he wrote. ‘U will never effect me. I am far to driven for u.’ Barton isn’t interested in dialogue. Monologues will do nicely, thank you very much.

‘Spineless maggots’ was the phrase he used to describe two journalists who dared to criticise him. ‘Numpty’ was another example. The fans who have paid good money to watch a string of average performances at Loftus Road from QPR’s No 17 this season are ‘bells’ and ‘trolls’.

As Barton himself has noted, form is temporary but class — or lack of it — is permanent. For all his highfalutin talk about freedom of speech and his undoubted intelligence, his responses are consistently shallow and insulting.

The anonymity of a Twitter account
encourages people to pour bile on you, unacceptably so, but ignore them
or argue coherently — do not retreat into a shell of abuse. We had just
begun to hope you might be better than that.

Never far from trouble: Barton (right) has hit the headlines both on and off the field this season

Never far from trouble: Barton (right) has hit the headlines both on and off the field this season

What do most other players think of his constant vitriol ‘I thought you journos liked honesty’ was one footballer’s response. The question jarred because, of course, we do. There is nothing more disconcerting than being presented with a series of prettily arranged clichs tied up in a ribbon of disinterest at 5pm on a Saturday.

The footballer was right — in theory, we should celebrate Barton’s decision to wax lyrical about whatever takes his fancy. In the increasingly sanitised world of top-flight football, it should be a refreshing and welcome injection of personality.

But it is not. His depressing diatribes came so thick and fast they rendered themselves almost irrelevant. It was just all too much; a bitter stream of consciousness laced with spite.

The direct channel Twitter gives Barton to talk to the outside world makes it a dangerous tool for him. QPR manager Mark Hughes has deep concerns about the midfielder’s incessant tweeting and rightly so: a description that came up frequently when talking to those close to Barton was ‘impetuous’; another was ‘instinctive’.

‘He does things without thinking,’ proved a common theme. @Joey7Barton will be back, all right. He won’t be able to resist it.

‘Some guys like a game of golf, some play snooker, Joey seems to Twitter all day,’ said Hughes.

Now, can somebody please pass him a seven iron