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Ryder Cup stands alone as golf's grandest spectacle

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MEDINAH, Ill. – The 39th Ryder Cup will be played across a sprawling stage.

That’s what Medinah Country Club is this week.

It's more stage than golf course with this event evolving from a little international team competition into the game’s grandest spectacle.

Giggling girls chased pop star Justin Timberlake across the property in the Captains/Celebrity Challenge earlier this week. His fiancée, actress Jessica Biel, paraded after him in sunglasses and under a parasol. Grown men chased around actor/comedian Bill Murray in the same exhibition wanting to be photographed with him.

Over on the driving range, where the real golfers warmed up, chants of “USA” rolled across Medinah so boisterously you wondered if they heard it all the way down at Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain, the Old Water Tower and the Navy Pier.

This wondrous noise began Tuesday, on the driving range, during practice rounds.

“First practice round, we get to the tee, and there are 10,000 people,” American Ryder Cup rookie Webb Simpson said. “I felt like I was in the final group of a major, and it’s a practice round.”

Bubba Watson was so overwhelmed with the roar he got at the first tee in that practice round that he choked up with emotion sticking his tee in the ground.

“I might have teared up a little bit,” Watson said.

That’s what the Ryder Cup does. It percolates more emotion, more passion, than any event in the game. You saw that with Jeff Overton screaming “Boom Baby” in Wales two years ago after holing a shot from a fairway in the second round. You saw it with U.S. captain Paul Azinger riding around in a cart in front of critical matches, like some crazed cheerleader, exhorting the American crowd to get noisy at Valhalla in ‘08. You saw it with the American players and their wives turning the 17th green at Brookline into a dance floor before the event was even clinched in ‘99.

“Paul Azinger said it the best,” U.S. captain Davis Love III said. “We see the greatest shots ever, more shots holed, more incredible things in this, and I think that you have to have that kind of pressure for there to be the excitement and the competitiveness of this event.

“It's very, very intense. It's almost unfair to the players, but I think these guys love the challenge of that.”

The Americans are favored on their home turf, but they’ve lost four of the last five Ryder Cups, six of the last eight. The competition is expected to be so close that former Euro captain Nick Faldo predicted it would end in a tie.

The importance of every point, every half-point, will ratchet up the excitement.

You will see more fist pumps this week, hear more roars when putts drop, than you will in any other event all year. You’ll sense more hearts breaking, too.

More than any other test in golf, the Ryder Cup makes grown men cry.

Mark Calcavecchia, a tough, gruff American player, famously stumbled down to the beach and wept after blowing his singles match with Colin Montgomerie at Kiawah Island in ’99.

Hunter Mahan fought the same feelings after the Americans lost to Europe in Wales two years ago. He broke down in tears trying to answer questions about his chunked chip sealing Europe’s victory.

Like Watson, U.S. captain Davis Love III has already teared up this week. Love got emotional Wednesday in the interview room talking about Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and how his veterans have gone out of their way to help him.

“I’ve heard the Ryder Cup is exponentially more, in each area, than the Presidents Cup,” said Simpson, who made his American Presidents Cup debut last year. “Just a little more exciting, a little more emotional.”

The Ryder Cup is a strange amalgam. It’s a little bit of the Academy Awards, with players getting red-carpet treatment on their way in and out of the clubhouse. It’s a little bit of the Olympics, with the patriotic flag-waving. And it’s a little bit of rowdy British soccer with the creative chanting.

Notably, all this excitement comes with no purse or prize money at stake. It’s about pride.

“It’s funny, it’s just that little trophy we want to win so badly,” Watson said. “So there’s going to be good shots I’m going to cry about, and there’s going to be bad shots I’m going to cry about . . . It’s just for the love of that little trophy that we want to win, and we want to win for our countries.”

There will be no better place to absorb just how different the Ryder Cup is than on the first tee Friday at the event’s start. It can feel like a frat party.

American and European supporters will do more than chant. Their creative back-and-forth can be comical.

In Wales two years ago, American Stewart Cink was waiting to be introduced when Euros began chanting: “We got more hair!” Cink playfully removed his cap, showing his bald dome.

When Americans began chanting back “We’ve got the cup,” Euros returned fire with “Not for long, not for long, not for long.”

Most championships, the early rounds just set the stage for the back-nine Sunday run at winning. In the Ryder Cup, there’s winning and losing at every hole.

“I've never been so nervous in my life,” said 10-time European Ryder Cupper Bernhard Langer. “There are times where you're just so nervous you're shaking in your shoes and feeling almost out of control. I've felt that a few times in the Ryder Cup.”

It’s just part of what makes it golf’s grandest spectacle.