The more you observe at the Ryder Cup, the more you feel that it should be rebranded as “bring your wife to work week”. It is the one moment in the sporting calendar where significant others are treated less as adornments than as central pieces of the pageant.
Even at Wimbledon, Andy Murray’s wife Kim finds herself depicted as an impeccably-coiffured bystander. But at golf’s schmaltz-heavy spectacular, the partners move to centre stage, given coordinating outfits, prime seats at the opening ceremony, even fashion shoots. Few could forget the sight in 2010 of Corey Pavin’s wife Lisa appearing on the cover of Avid Golfer magazine draped only in a flag of red, white and blue, under the headline: “Aye, aye captainess.”
Fast-forward 13 years and the spirit of Mrs Pavin is alive and well in Rome. Jena Sims, wife of Brooks Koepka, is an influencer who has written on Instagram how, on the couple’s wedding day, she gave her husband a grey jacket stitched on the inside with photographs of her latest lingerie shoot.
The TikTok channel of Max Homa’s wife Lacey lovingly documents her lifestyle as a PGA Tour WAG. Neither of them, it feels reasonable to suggest, are too shy about embracing the Ryder Cup’s alternative guise as a seven-day beauty parade.
It is not solely a social-media phenomenon, this spectacle of women marching the fairways behind their husbands in colour-coded harmony. Rewind to the Belfry in 1993 and you recall how the European wives dressed in knitwear so garish you would have thought twice about giving it as an ironic Christmas present. In 1999, there were pictures galore of Tabitha Furyk out shopping with Julie Crenshaw as they chose their evening gowns for the Brookline gala.
So far, so harmless. But as we embark on another week of two captains name-checking each other’s wives at every turn, it feels apt to ask why the custom still persists. We live in a time where it seems tone-deaf, crass even, to portray women’s role in sport as in any way decorative. And yet the Ryder Cup positively revels in it, with players clustering their spouses together in a mobile cheerleading troupe.
In no other sport is there anything quite like it. Take last week’s Laver Cup in Vancouver, billed as tennis’s answer to the Ryder Cup but with one significant difference, in that Bjorn Borg’s wife Patricia did not have to sit courtside waving a little European flag. Of course, those joining the biennial WAG chorus line in golf appear perfectly happy to do so. Peter Hanson’s wife Sanna said of her experience at Medinah in 2012: “Even though I’m just a wife, I’m treated like a star. You are taken care of in a totally different way. They even arrange spa days.”
Plus, there is the added factor of how golf is, for every other week of the year, a strikingly solitary pursuit. Players are lone wolves, often on a different continent to their families and with only their caddies for company. It cannot hurt for them to have their wives ever present for the most intense team-bonding exercise of their lives.
Clearly, this was the view of the estimable Mrs Pavin. When asked about her enlarged role at Celtic Manor, where she would design the US players’ daily menus, team-room furniture, even the clubhouse decor, she replied, with no lack of earnestness: “When I hear people say, ‘At Ryder Cups, why are the wives so involved?’ I think, ‘Why wouldn’t they be?’ Golf is a very individual sport, so when you come home your wife is your best friend, your confidante, your lover, your sports psychologist.”
Except these wives appear in Ryder Cup mode to serve as little more than props. It has always been a peculiarity of the event that it trades in highly-choreographed shows of marital bliss – with sometimes hilarious results. In Paris five years ago, photographers asked the US players to turn around and give their wife or girlfriend a kiss. Only Rickie Fowler did not have one and so, in one of the all-time great images, he stood there shrugging his shoulders in the middle of a mass smooch, looking like the ultimate gooseberry.
It all looks so staged, this positioning of the wives as trophies. And you wonder how long such ornamental presentation can last. The fact that Ryder Cup WAGs are content with their casting is not, by itself, a justification for golf to keep doing it.
In 2018, there was uproar in Formula One when owners Liberty Media proposed dispensing with grid girls. It smacked of wokery writ large, with many of the girls protesting that they were delighted to hold up the drivers’ names on the grid, insisting they did not feel in any way demeaned or vulnerable.
But it was the view of the Women’s Sport Trust – that it was “disappointing to use women to accessorise events rather than to be a central part of sport” – that won the day.
This same accessorising continues in golf, without the slightest shame. But times do change. In football, England’s WAGs were so integral to the 2006 World Cup story that one young woman would go for a run in Baden-Baden just hoping to be spotted by paparazzi.
Now, it is far more low-key: indeed, when Aaron Ramsdale’s fiancee Georgina was pictured yawning in Qatar without her knowledge, the Football Association reacted furiously, threatening journalists with bans.
Golf, a sport that has long had a problem with gender stereotypes, is an outlier in that it brazenly keeps the WAG circus going. Where most sports are trying desperately to empower women, the Ryder Cup represents them in a manner more befitting a 1970s game show. It is, at best, a mystifying anachronism.