NEWPORT, Wales – This is why the Ryder Cup is spectacularly unlike anything else in golf.
With Graeme McDowell over a shot into the 18th green Thursday at Celtic Manor, the Welsh National Anthem is rolling across the hillside at the Twenty Ten Course.
It’s the kind of music that stirs something ancient in your soul.
It’s an Old World sound that makes you want to charge some castle door.
Or defend one.
The Welsh National Anthem is echoing up from a stage nearby, where Ryder Cup officials are preparing for the opening ceremonies. The fact that this is just a practice round adds to the staggering spectacle. At least 15,000 fans hug the hillside at this one hole with European captain Colin Montgomerie over McDowell’s shoulder in the middle of the fairway. When McDowell coaxes a wedge to within 10 feet of the flagstick, the hillside erupts for a shot that does not count.
It’s just practice, but the Welsh are embracing every dimension of this international event.The pride this country feels hosting the Ryder Cup is palpable.
The land of my fathers
The land of my choice
The land in which poets and minstrels rejoice
The land whose stern warriors were true to the core
While bleeding for freedom of yore.
Wales! Wales! Fav’rite land of Wales
Those are how the words translate from the Wales’ national anthem. Mark Roe, the three-time European Tour winner working for Sky Sports TV, isn’t even Welsh, but he found the scene profoundly moving.
“I was getting teary,” Roe said.
More than 50,000 fans are expected for Friday’s opening rounds. More than 30,000 turned out for the Welcome to Wales Concert staged Wednesday night for the teams and dignitaries. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was there. So was Catherine Zeta-Jones, the Welsh born actress.
“First class from the moment we came here,” Montgomerie said. “This isn’t five-star or six-star, this is seven-star.”
There’s nothing like the Ryder Cup in golf, an event where nationalism and a team concept trump the individualism that distinguishes the game nearly every other week of the year.
It’s golf’s best event because one Ryder Cup is filled with more thrilling and agonizing moments than any single major championship.
The winning and losing isn’t reserved for the final scene in Ryder Cups. There’s winning and losing at the first hole. There’s winning and losing every hole. There’s winning and losing before the first shots are struck. That’s what it felt like Thursday, where American captain Corey Pavin bungled the introduction of his team in the opening ceremony and then came under fire for his opening lineup.
Even Montgomerie couldn’t resist pouncing after Pavin forgot Stewart Cink when introducing his lineup.
“We’re 1 up,” Montgomerie cracked.
Pavin was later grilled for leaving Jim Furyk on the bench for the opening fourballs session a week after Furyk won the Tour Championship and for leaving Hunter Mahan on the bench despite Mahan’s undefeated record in his first and only Ryder Cup two years ago at Valhalla.
“We’ve got a lot of strong hitters on the team, a lot of guys that make a lot of birdies,” Pavin said. “I wanted to get guys out there in better ball that make a lot of birdies.”
Pavin’s decision to play Tiger Woods with Steve Stricker in the third game out instead of the first or last games drew strong reactions, but the biggest second guess of Pavin’s lineup was to play rookies Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton in the last slot.
'Probably the one pairing you wouldn't have guessed,' said Luke Donald, who'll team with Padraig Harrington in that final game.
Montgomerie sounded like a man setting up his lineup to take down Woods in the first or final games.
“I was expecting Tiger to go first or fourth,' Montgomerie said. 'Tiger being hidden is a different move.”
Montgomerie would love to see Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher take down Woods and Stricker. Beating Woods, even in his current sluggish form, carries more motivational weight on the scoreboard than winning any other match. Montgomerie knows. He and Padraig Harrington teamed to beat Woods and Phil Mickelson in the opening fourballs at Oakland Hills six years ago and Europe went on to win a record rout.
'Anybody that plays Tiger Woods in our team can't wait to play,' Montgomerie said. 'Obviously, the one game you look for, the one man you look for in that team environment.'
Why Woods and Stricker in the third slot?
“I just thought it was a good slot for them, so I put them there,” Pavin said.
When Montgomerie didn’t hear Woods’ name in the first game, he expected to hear it in the last. He didn’t expect Overton and Watson.
“The last game, an important game,” Montgomerie said.
Montgomerie said winning the opening session is important because momentum is such a large factor in these matches. If the home crowd is roaring early, and the home team’s flags litter the board, it takes a toll on the visitors. The winner of the opening session has won the last four Ryder Cups.
“I put a very big importance on tomorrow morning’s session,” Montgomerie said. “Momentum has to be gained early on and then continued through the afternoon to gain the lead Friday evening. That’s my goal. It’s all set up for that, so we gain momentum in the morning.”
Confidence is high on the European side. You can feel it here. Given Pavin’s unsteady start, the lack of inspiration delivered in the speech and the level of second-guessing of his lineup, Montgomerie might be right. Europe feels like it’s 1 up. But you never know. This is the Ryder Cup, where the number of upsets are another reason this is the best event in golf.