NEWPORT, Wales – Preparations for the Ryder Cup were intense and inspirational. There was laughter and a few tears. One thing players from both sides agreed on was the importance of rallying behind the flag.
And that was before anyone hit a shot Wednesday.
A rain-filled day at Celtic Manor shifted the attention to the team rooms, and even that became somewhat of a contest.
U.S. captain Corey Pavin gathered his troops for a motivational speech by Maj. Dan Rooney, a decorated F-16 fighter pilot from Oklahoma with the rare distinction of being an Iraqi war veteran and a PGA professional.
“It was pretty emotional, actually, but a good kind of emotion,” Pavin said. “It was very quiet when he was talking.”
The voice in the European team room was over the telephone, and it was chilling – Seve Ballesteros, the symbol of European pride and determination in the Ryder Cup. The Spaniard, stricken with a brain tumor, is unable to travel.
“We have enough motivation in our team room,” captain Colin Montgomerie said. “I was after some passion. And by God, I got it.”
Ballesteros sounded like he wanted to tee it up himself.
“Go get them so hard that they’ll all be caddies in the future,” Ballesteros told them, according to the Swedish Golf Federation website.
Europe, 1 up.
Montgomerie’s squad waited more than an hour to tee off because of a steady rain that drenched Celtic Manor. Once the players arrived on the first tee, the captain was delighted with what he saw. Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell and the caddies were wearing wigs that resembled the mop top of Rory McIlroy.
Montgomerie said the 21-year-old Northern Irishman in his first Ryder Cup, was “quite upset” about press coverage of his rift with Tiger Woods. McIlroy was quoted six weeks ago as saying he would “love to face” Woods at the Ryder Cup, and Woods offered a terse, “Me, too,” in his press conference Tuesday.
“It was getting out of hand, tabloid-wise,” Montgomerie said. “So what we decided to do was find seven wigs – which God knows how people do that, but they do, especially ones looking like that – and the caddies and the players that were playing with him decided that we’ll get Rory on the first tee and make him feel part of the team again.
“And that was the right thing to do. He played magnificently today. So we’re all back on level terms again.”
Phil Mickelson had more to say about McIlroy-Woods than anything Rooney said in the American team room. He defended McIlroy’s comments, calling him one of the classiest players on tour and that everyone wants a chance to take on the best in the world.
As for the U.S. team room?
“Yeah, it was interesting, and I’d rather not discuss what was said,” Mickelson said. “But I will say that it was the quietest that I had ever seen an audience. It was fascinating.”
Get ready for some noise in just two days, when the amphitheater-shaped bleachers behind the first tee – think of a minor-league baseball stadium – fills with fans who have been waiting two years to see golf’s best team competition.
Montgomerie bristled at the notion that Europe needed any motivation, whether it came from Ballesteros, former winning captains Sam Torrance and Ian Woosnam, or Welsh rugby legend Gareth Edwards.
All his players had to do was see Pavin carrying around that gold trophy.
“The only motivation this team needed was to lose the Ryder Cup two years ago,” he said.
That American team didn’t even have Woods, who was recovering from knee surgery. He now is recovering from a personal life in such turmoil that the world’s No. 1 player – though probably not for much longer – has yet to win a tournament this year.
Woods and the rest of the Americans went out in the rain, and all but three of them stopped after playing nine holes. Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and 21-year-old Rickie Fowler continued on and played the front nine.
European assistants made sure cups were filled with hot soup on a cool day of wet weather. Rain is part of the forecast for the rest of the week, making Celtic Manor play even longer, and the rough even thicker.
“I don’t have any issue with anybody dealing with bad weather,” Pavin said. “I think everybody can handle it.”
He spent most of his day – when he wasn’t chatting with Prince Charles – fending off a British press that grilled him over his choice of a military man speaking to the American team at the Ryder Cup.
Pavin was part of the U.S. team that wore a camouflage cap when it arrived at Kiawah Island in 1991 for matches that infamously were dubbed, “The War on the Shore.”
“I think the military awareness in the United States is probably at an all-time high,” Pavin said. “And I think people, certainly in the States and over here, appreciate the military and what they do for our freedoms. And that’s what that was about.”
Thursday is the final day of practice before the opening ceremony, which is when Montgomerie and Pavin announce the fourballs matches for the opening session.
Based on the last couple of days, Friday can’t get here soon enough.
“Zach Johnson has told me one thing,” Bubba Watson said. “He put his arm around me and said, ‘It’s just golf, Bubba.’ Because that’s all it is.”