SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – When Tommy Fleetwood daydreams about his first Ryder Cup experience, he’s usually standing on the first tee. Fleetwood can try to conjure up all the spine-tingling, stomach-churning, adrenaline-pumping moments of his past. But player after player agrees: nothing else in golf compares.
Even Tiger Woods tried to talk partner Mark O’Meara into letting him tee off on the even holes in 1997 to avoid that first tee shot.
“The best piece of advice that definitely (Ian) Poulter’s given me,” said Fleetwood, “and Rory (McIlroy) says the same thing: He says, it’s the most special you’ll ever feel. Whatever nerves you felt up to now, times it by 10, and that’s what you have.”
Actually, at Le Golf National outside Paris, it might be worse. This is a golf course that was built to host championships, which means there’s plenty of room. The massive grandstand surrounding the first tee seats 6,900. That’s more than three times the size of the first tee at Glenagles. The stand on the first tee at Hazeltine sat 1,668.
“If this is the route we’re going to go,” said European captain Thomas Bjorn, “we’re going to have 60,000 sitting down the first hole at some stage in the future.”
It’s difficult for experienced players to put into words what it feels like on that first tee. It’s not like walking to the first tee at Augusta National or St. Andrews, said Poulter. Forget the fans, players get goosebumps in the hotel room by simply putting on their uniform for the first time.
U.S. captain Jim Furyk remembers everything about his first shot at the 1997 Ryder Cup.
“I hit the 3-wood at Valderrama so far,” said Furyk. “It might be the longest 3-wood to this day. I out-drove everyone in my group by 20 yards, and I was by far the shortest guy in the group, but I was just so jacked up and flushed it.”
Organizers expect more than 270,000 fans this week from 90 different countries. And it will be a decidedly biased crowd. Officials report that only 7 percent of the fans attending will be supporting Team USA.
“It will be absolutely incredible,” said Poulter. “I think there’s 6,000-7,000 seats in the stand, and then if you line the left-hand side and right-hand side with 10,000, you’re going to have over 15,000 people making a noise.”
The low-key Franceso Molinari, this year’s British Open champ, was asked to compare the pressure of trying to win a major to that of a Ryder Cup.
“You won’t believe me,” Molinari began, “but it’s nowhere near. Carnoustie was nowhere near Medinah in any matching ways. It’s hard to believe, but it’s probably because you play for a team; you play for a continent in our case, and you know about the tradition and what players have done in the past.”
Fleetwood, one of five rookies on Europe’s team, is a first-timer in every sense of the word, having never attended a Ryder Cup. Even with The Belfry being only a couple hours from his hometown of Southport, Fleetwood said his family couldn’t afford tickets.
But he’s here now, ready to face the most pressure-packed event of his career. Asked if he’d ever before felt overwhelmed by a pressure situation, Fleetwood pointed to the day his wife gave birth to their son, Franklin.
“I got told off for shouting too much,” joked Fleetwood, “so I might try to keep it down a little this week.”
As daunting as it could be on that first tee Friday morning, Fleetwood is excited to embrace every bit of electricity that courses through his veins. It’s all part of the dream.
“I mean, come on, it’s not a chore to be playing in the Ryder Cup,” he said. “It’s the greatest thing you’ll ever do in your career.”