MEDINAH, Ill. – I’ve been to a Super Bowl, and don’t remember the stadium being filled an hour before kickoff. But the Ryder Cup, well, it’s different, very different, especially the raucous atmosphere that surrounds the first tee on any morning of the event.
Firstly, the stands were nearly filled by 6:20 a.m., an hour before the opening match. To a bystander overlooking from atop the grandstand behind the tee, it appeared the Americans had done their part in getting there early, as only one full row in a crowd of 1,500 or so was decked out in European garb. But then volunteers decided to pass out some European flags to anyone interested – and there were plenty of takers. Soon the grandstands were waving blue.
The first tee at a Ryder Cup takes on a soccer-stadium type atmosphere (or sorry, that’s football to those of you across the pond), with plenty of spirit and song. The European support began early with a few verses of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole,” to which the Americans had an answer that shook the trees: “USA! USA! USA!” The only problem? That’s pretty much all the U.S. has. There should be mandatory first-tee song camp for anyone interested in visiting the 41st Ryder Cup matches in Hazeltine come 2016. Observe and take notes at Gleneagles in two years. The Euros are brilliant.
The U.S. team pulled off a well-thought maneuver to get the crowd amped up a little more, sending its four assistant captains to the first tee early with a plan. All four tossed their U.S. caps into the crowd, and replaced them with caps from Chicago sports teams. Fred Couples sported the White Sox; Scott Verplank the Bears; Jeff Sluman the Blackhawks; and Mike Hulbert the Cubs.
If you thought the Chicago Bulls were feeling a little left out, that soon was solved when the legendary No. 23 himself, Michael Jordan, a special U.S. assistant, made his way to the tee shortly before Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker teed off.
As for the first tee shots of the morning? Clearly, the opening tee shots of any match represent one of the most pressure-filled swings a golfer ever will attempt.
Said Paul Azinger, the 2008 U.S. captain, “It’s like going to the dentist for a root canal and learning they just ran out of Novocaine.”
Graeme McDowell, Jim Furyk, Jason Dufner and Tiger Woods were among those who yanked tee shots left (Woods hammering his way left, up against a fence); Keegan Bradley, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald (who chose 3-wood) and Ian Poulter were those who passed the test nicely.
It wasn’t until about 7:30, with the second group ready to go, that the U.S. grandstand contingent produced its first quality zinger: As Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson joined Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia and walking PGA official Jim Deaton on the first tee for a picture, the crowd began chanting, “Ma-jor win-ners! Maj-or win-ners!” It was a reference to the two U.S. players who have major championships, and the two Europeans who, as of yet, do not.
When U.S. chanted “We’ve got Lefty!” a lone voice with a British accent answered, “We’ve got Lukey.”
McDowell was first to hit, and three groups later, Woods was last, shortly past 8 a.m., standing for a long time over his follow through to make sure his golf ball had survived.
It did. And so had all the players survived the haunting aura of opening up the Ryder Cup.
Soon, the players were off and the Ryder Cup was underway, though, when Europe went 1 up in all four matches, a home crowd expected to be electric had grown noticeably quieter.
“We need to get some guys making some birdies,” said U.S. captain Davis Love III.