MEDINAH, Ill. – The first tee on Ryder Cup Friday is one of the most pressurized scenes in all of sports. It’s Game 7 of the World Series, a do-or-die game in the NBA Finals, the final moments of the Super Bowl . . . all on a swath of closely mown grass some 10 yards wide.
Who cares that so many European players now live in the U.S., that they have become fixtures on the PGA Tour? These biennial matches haven’t lost any of their intensity, at least not among fans. They still wrapped themselves in their country’s flags like blankets. They stomped and sang songs even with the competitors still warming up on the range, nowhere in sight.
They arrived early, too. It was 6:39 a.m. local time when this correspondent arrived. The air smelled of hot coffee, hamburgers were already on the grill, and fans jammed eight rows deep along the sides of the first tee. Everyone could see their breath. It's 51 degrees.
The setup around No. 1 tee is such that players must walk from the practice green over scaffolding to arrive at the tee – gladiators entering their arena, only this venue had lush green grass, bunkers and a MetLife blimp hovering overhead.
It’s 6:58. The Euros’ “Ole, ole, ole!” chant suddenly was met by screams of “U-S-A!” – a minute-long clash of vibrant and impassioned noise, like a fight between teenaged siblings.
It wouldn’t be long before U.S. assistant captains Jeff Sluman and Fred Couples arrived on the first tee, sparking another “U-S-A!” chant. Freddie lifted both arms in exultation, then was reduced to a gray-haired, cool-kid mascot, clapping and flipping hats to the fans.
It’s 7:15. Team Europe – well, a few of the team members who weren’t playing (Martin Kaymer, Nicolas Colsaerts) on Friday morning – made their way to the back of the first tee, for moral support. Not far behind was U.S. captain Davis Love III, who extended his left fist into the air. The crowd roared.
Soon, Love and the rest of the assistant captains gathered on the teeing ground for a group picture – this year’s Christmas card.
The first player in the first group to arrive was Jim Furyk, and he wore a snow cap. Walking toward the tee, he held his left hand to his ear – I can’t hear you! His partner, Brandt Snedeker, a Ryder Cup rookie, was next, and he clapped and high-fived and smiled wide – hey, the guy just won $11.4 mill.
It’s 7:19. Furyk walked over and kissed his wife, Tabitha, and Sneds smooched his bride, too. Photogs rushed to grab their cameras.
As Europe’s Graeme McDowell was introduced, the Golf Gods hit the mute button on the universal remote – the crowd fell silent, immediately. And the first tee shot of the 39th Ryder Cup sailed way left, clipping a tree some 75 yards ahead, and fans scrambled to get a proper view of the ball. Furyk then pegged it, the crowd cheered, he set up right, and then overcooked it left, too. Nerves.
It’s 7:25. On the tee, Love conducted a TV interview, the equivalent of an NFL coach being asked his thoughts after the first media timeout in the first quarter. A few fans sang “Old MacDonald” as Luke Donald’s wife, Diane, slipped to the left side of the tee.
It’s 7:28. Here came Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley – frequent practice-round partners, gambling buddies, mentor and mentee. Lefty flashed a few thumbs-up, as is his wont, and not far behind came Sergio Garcia and hometown favorite Luke Donald. Luuuuuuuuke. They took an awkward photo – U.S. team on the left, match official in the middle, Europe on the right – that could feature the caption, “House divided!”
The moments before this star-studded match were tense, and the players exchanged pleasantries. Fortunately, a few clever fans provided the levity, chanting, “Ma-jor win-ners!” referring to this Euro duo’s oft-discussed oh-fer in golf’s biggest events.
It’s 7:33. Donald stuck his tee in the ground and waited for the go-ahead. Silence, again. His tee shot with a 3-wood faded down the right side, but received a favorable kick into the fairway.
Bradley, another rookie, played first for the Americans. He’s a big hitter, with a nervy pre-shot routine, but in a few short moments he would select driver, visualize his shot and hammer one down the center. He walked toward the front of the tee, turned back and high-fived Mickelson.
As he waited to play, Dufner squatted and stretched, swung and spat, but his only acknowledgement of the crowd was a tip of his cap, like in those Comcast commercials.
It’s 7:50. Lee Westwood smashed a drive down the middle, and Dufner, after seven waggles, pulled his tee shot into the bunker. Advantage, Europe.
About 10 minutes later, Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan ambled over to the tee, awaiting the final group. Before long, Europe vice captain Miguel Angel Jimenez – Golf’s Most Interesting Man – greeted Jordan, and they chatted for a few moments. Discussing their love of cigars, perhaps?
It’s 8:02. The final group made its way toward the tee, the crowd now thinning a bit, only five rows deep along the sides.
Justin Rose and Ian Poulter were first to arrive, and then came Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods, the latter playing his first home Ryder Cup since 2004. His left hand stuffed in his pants pocket – surely the first time he’s worn blue plaid pants in competition – Woods doffed his hat to the crowd.
“Fourteen majors in this group!” a fan yelled.
Poulter found the first fairway, per usual in the Ryder Cup, but it was a different story for Woods. Setting up to hit a fade, he hit an ominous, ghastly, double-crossed snap-hook that nearly hit the tree and eventually came to rest near a fence – the worst tee ball of any of the eight competitors. Stricker walked ahead, eager to see the lie.
Now it was 8:07, and everyone in the morning foursomes was out on the course. A warm morning sun had lifted the temperature to 58 degrees, fans scrambled to find their next-best viewing area, and the day’s possibilities seemed limitless.