With some of the largest crowds you will ever see watching practice rounds, Love was curious how the Americans making their first Ryder Cup appearances would react.
Would they look wide-eyed? Or overly nervous? Or unusually uncomfortable in any way?
Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, Webb Simpson and Brandt Snedeker are the X-factors in this year’s biennial competition. While the United States appears evenly matched with the Europeans in so many ways, the Europeans boast more experience. The Euros have just one rookie (Nicolas Colsaerts) on their roster.
The four American first-timers arrived with little idea what pressure awaits them, but they also arrived with no Ryder Cup scars.
“The Ryder Cup to me is like the last nine holes of a major when you’ve got a chance to win, except it starts Friday morning on the first tee,” Love said. “And it never lets up.
“I honestly don’t think you get any more nervous on Sunday trying to win your singles match than you are on Friday morning trying to hit your first tee shot.”
That pretty much makes Ryder Cup practice rounds feel like the early rounds of a major. So Love watched, looking for clues as to how his first-timers were feeling.
“They were nervous on the first tee, and some of them admitted it, and they were shocked at how many people were out there, but while they were telling me that, they never missed a shot,” Love said.
With Europe having won four of the last five Ryder Cups, the American rookies will have a lot to say about whether the United States can turn around Europe’s dominance. One-third of Love’s team has never played in a Ryder Cup before. Whether that makes them fearless or fearful will become clear early in Friday’s foursomes, the toughest format in the event. It’s alternate shot, the truest “team” competition in golf in that a player suffers more in that format when a partner hits a bad shot. It ratchets up the pressure on every shot.
How many rookies will Love put out right away? How many will he wait to introduce in fourballs?
Love looked for confirmation in what he was seeing in the practice rounds, in his rookies looking as good as he thought they did. He found it cozying up to swing coach Butch Harmon out on the course.
“Butch was watching a lot of them, and he goes, `Holy cow, these guys are playing unbelievable, aren’t they?’” Love said.
Love said the toughest part of his job isn’t figuring out pairings but figuring out who to sit out because so many of his players appear to be in good form.
“They’re all playing great, they all look like veterans,” Love said.
Bradley, Dufner, Simpson and Snedeker may be playing in their first Ryder Cup, but they hardly fit the mold of rookies. They’re all among the top 14 in the world rankings, three of them among the top 10.
“They’re major championship winners, they’re FedEx Cup winners,” Love said. “They’ve done a lot. They’ve played a lot of great golf, and they’re really comfortable, confident guys.”
Simpson, 27, won the U.S. Open this year and played on last year’s winning American Presidents Cup team.
Bradley, 26, counted the PGA Championship among his two titles last year. He won the WGC-Bridgestone this year.
Snedeker, 31, just won the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup last week. He has won twice this year.
Dufner, 35, also has two victories this year.
Phil Mickelson is playing in his ninth Ryder Cup, more than any player in these matches, but he says the veteran nucleus of the team is getting as much from these rookies as they’re giving to them.
“We need that excitement, that energy that the rookies provide as much as they need a little bit of guidance,” Mickelson said. “We need that positive outlook, that desire to win, because our highlights, our moments that we look back on are ’99 and ’08, the two times that we’ve won. We want to create another memory, another special week.
“I’m going to be playing a lot with Keegan Bradley, that’s no secret here. It’s fun playing with Keegan because this is his first team event. He is so excited, and that exuberance and energy, you feed off it.”
Bradley isn’t the only rookie who appears to have found a natural partner.
The American rookies take a lot of confidence into their pairings.
“I feel confident, right now, at an all-time high,” Snedeker said. “I’m playing the best golf of my career. I beat some of the best players in the world last weekend, so I feel like my game is ready the rest of the week.”
Dufner thinks his temperament should help him this week.
“Obviously, the pressure and the environment of this event is going to be nothing like I’ve experienced,” Dufner said. “So, I’m just looking forward to being out there and in that moment and seeing how I respond to it. I generally stay pretty even, not too up, not too down. It might be a good fit for me.”
The Ryder Cup hasn’t really started and Bradley’s already ranking the week as one of his best experiences.
“Walking to the first tee [for Tuesday’s practice round] was probably the proudest moment of my entire career,” Bradley said. “I’ve had the most fun I’ve maybe ever had on a golf course. It was, honestly, one of the highlights of my career. I kind of expect that to happen every day this week.”
That’s music to Love’s ears.