Sept. 27, 2002.
That was the first day of my first Ryder Cup. I was working for Mark Calcavecchia at The Belfry, which was hosting the matches that had been delayed a year because of 9-11.
Everything leading up to the Ryder Cup had been exciting. Receiving the uniforms for the week, talking with the men, both caddies and players, who would be my teammates on what to expect, the flight over with the team, which also included captains, families and PGA officials. It was all pretty heady stuff for me, and I can remember it all – much like I remember every Ryder Cup I’ve worked – like it was yesterday.
I grew up playing team sports, mostly baseball, but I hadn’t felt part of a team like this for years.
Fast forward to the first tee on Friday. Calc was sitting out the morning matches, but he would be playing in the afternoon. Being my first Ryder Cup, I wanted to get out there early to watch the first matches tee off, to get a feel for what it would be like, to see how the course was playing, and to support my teammates.
When I walked out of the locker room, I thought I knew what to expect, but I honestly had no idea. On a cold, dark dawn, I was met with a wall of songs and chants and cheers, flags waving, hands clapping, voices roaring. It was exhilarating. It felt like a huge college football game had broken out on the first tee of a golf tournament, and I’d never seen anything like it. It was exciting, and fun, and you could literally feel everyone’s heartbeats and anxiety levels peaking.
The first match out was a fourball, and the U.S. had sent out Tiger Woods and Paul Azinger. Zinger had earned a reputation as a Ryder Cup stalwart, a bulldog who had been through it all and was ready for anything, and all week as we prepared it really felt that way.
The first hole was a straightforward, short par-4. A long iron off the tee and short iron into the green. I was standing right next to the tee. After the introductions were made, Zinger played the first shot. I watched intently as he walked up to the tee box and leaned down to tee up his ball, that’s when things really hit me.
Here was Paul Azinger, Ryder Cup hero, teeing up a for a basic 3-iron, something he’d no doubt done thousands of times in his life. But this was different. This was the Ryder Cup, and I could visibly see his hands shaking as he tried to tee his ball up. He walked behind the ball, made a couple of practice swings, addressed the ball, and hit one right into the rough or the fairway bunker (I don’t remember which), and strolled back over to the bag.
Putting his 3-iron away, I could clearly hear him say, “I just wanted to get it airborne.” Whoa. Instantly, I understood what this meant, how different the pressure would be, and I suddenly wondered if I would be able to add 130 plus 10 once we got going in the afternoon.
Since those first matches, I’ve been lucky enough to caddie in five more Ryder Cups, for Chris Riley, Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar, and as an assistant in Paris. And though I grew more comfortable and confident as they came along, the first-tee jitters, excitement, nervousness and joy have never left.
In fact, they’re here again just writing these words.
Here’s the thing about Ryder Cups that not many people think about: You don’t get many opportunities, and you never know when your last will come. Jordan Spieth will play in the Masters for the next 25-30 years. Justin Thomas will be in the PGA for a long, long time. Jon Rahm probably has 30-plus years of majors in front of him. Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy the same. But you know how many Ryder Cups they’re guaranteed to play in going forward? One. Just this one, just this week.
It’s very likely we may have seen the last of Woods and Phil Mickelson in the Ryder Cup. Everyone’s time comes eventually, so my advice to all the players and all the caddies on both sides: Treat it like it’s your last one and give everything you have to the team for the entire week because two years from now, you have no idea if you’ll be back.
And when you’re all done, playing these will be the weeks you remember more than any others, because these weeks are bigger than yourself.
The Room, or the Team Room, isn’t a room but really two or three rooms: One at the course, a huge one at the hotel and a caddie room at the hotel.
The Room is something you cannot possibly understand unless you’ve been in one.
When I hear criticisms and critiques from those who have never been lucky enough to be in a Team Room, I always have to say to myself, You have no idea. I get it. I mean, they have a job to do, as I will this year at Whistling Straits covering the event for NBC and Golf Channel. But to try and analyze the events of a Ryder Cup like it’s a normal event because this stat says this and that stat says that, because this player isn’t playing well and should be sitting out, because his shoulder rotation is too big and he’s too wild off the tee, because he missed a 6-footer somewhere, well, it doesn’t work like that.
What you see in The Room is exhilarating, heartbreaking and loving. It’s full of heart and desire, and fear and worry that you will let someone down. You will see players who have been there before: Phil, Tiger, Furyk, Love, Couples, Stricker, actively watching the younger guys – or ones who haven’t been under this kind of microscope before – and finding ways to relieve the tension. It’s less strategy and more bonding, putting an arm around a guy, talking about his family, making sure they know they are cared for, that they are a valuable part of the team, no matter what happens out there. It’s an attempt to instill confidence and comfort, to let guys know that they don’t need to be superhuman or do things beyond their abilities.
It is in The Room where I have seen players win matches they weren’t even playing in because of a word they said the night before to a teammate, because of a little needle or a word of praise during a practice round on Tuesday, in a phone call when they were picked for the team.
It goes the other way around, too. In 2008, when the U.S. had lost a series of Ryder Cups that weren’t really close, I saw something completely different. It was the veterans watching the rookies brimming with confidence. While Zinger was undoubtedly the leader of that team, what Mahan, Anthony Kim, Boo Weekley and Kenny Perry brought into that room was indescribable. In Kim’s case, here comes this brash young rookie wearing a huge belt buckle with his initials on them in red, white and blue sequins with a chip on his shoulder. In Weekley and Perry’s case, here come a couple of Southerners who gave everything they had to be on this team, one of whom would end up riding his driver like a horse down the first tee, another who would be hugging his 89-year-old father dressed in blue jean overalls at the end of the week. And my player, Mahan, played in all five matches, never losing, and led the team in points for the week.
It’s well known that Zinger was the first to implement the pod system. Our pod was Mahan, Mickelson, Kim and Justin Leonard. Zinger gave them ownership, and when Hunter knew he was picked by those three, well, it just meant the world to him and he performed like it.
In 2010 at Celtic Manor, the matches were extremely close coming down the stretch on Sunday. I always loved my player being put out early in singles. You don’t have to wait around all day. You don’t have to see how things are developing. You don’t have as much time to get nervous. You just get to go out and play.
When I saw captain Corey Pavin put Mahan out in the anchor match, I was both thrilled and nervous. We would be up against the always tough – and extremely gracious – Graeme McDowell. I’m not gonna lie, when the singles draw came out, that night, though I was exhausted, I went for a walk around the grounds, just breathing in some air, looking at some stars, calming myself for what was to come the next day.
Being out last in a close Ryder Cup is like nothing else you’ll ever experience in golf. When you tee off – and really for the first 10-12 holes – it’s actually pretty quiet. Most of the fans are up ahead and invested in the earlier matches, so you spend the first couple of hours of the day just kind of cruising along. Then, one match ends, then another, then another, and all those fans, players, caddies and captains start filtering back to the later groups. First you see a couple of extra carts full of players and caddies in the fairway, and a few more wives following along the rope lines. Then the crowd goes from lining the rope line, to 5 deep, then 10 deep, then 20 deep, and with them, the voices and cheers and groans start to grow louder and louder.
By the time we got to the last few holes, every player, every caddie, both captains and all of their assistants, every significant other, and every single spectator on the grounds was with our group. What was amazing, though, was the bubble you feel like you’re in. You know everyone is there, you see your teammates pulling so hard for you, you feel yourself doing everything in your power not to let them down, but it’s all kind of a blur, and all you see and hear is your player, your opponent, the ball, the flag.
We all know what happened as McDowell closed out the match on No. 17 and secured the cup for Europe. The crowds enveloping the 17th green stormed around McDowell when he made his final putt, and just getting out of there with the bag on my shoulder was all I thought about initially.
There were carts there for us to be driven in, but in all the chaos I just wanted to walk in, so I did.
I knew there were teammates around me, but I really couldn’t look up and look them in the eyes yet. I wasn’t ready. About halfway in, I started a silent cry. I could feel it welling up, and I just let it go in a fit of disappointment, sadness, feeling for Mahan, who gave 110% to that match, feeling initially like we’d let our teammates down.
I’ll never forget walking into the locker room, getting Mahan’s bag packed up, and then just going by myself to sit in the showers for a while. I could hear the other players and caddies out in the locker room packing up and giving each other hugs. I sat in there for what felt like an eternity, but it was probably only a half hour or so. I waited until I knew everyone had left, then I came out, packed up my locker and walked back to the hotel.
I know these team events have always meant probably too much to me, but that’s just the way it is. I got back to my room, packed for the early flight the next morning and then just laid on the floor with my headphones on listening to The Replacements, a band that has salved my wounds in the past and would again that night.
I usually don’t attend the Sunday night parties unless we win, but after a while I went down to The Room, and I’m so glad I did. Everyone was there, and they all came up to Mahan and I and gave us huge hugs, letting us know no one person wins or loses these things, that we were still valued members of the team, that they loved us, and that they were there for us. It meant everything.
Looking back at that day, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Would I change the outcome if I could? Absolutely. Would I trade the experience? Absolutely not. Not for a million dollars. As the wounds of losing healed, they were replaced by thoughts like, How many people in the world of golf will ever get to experience that position: Last out in a Ryder Cup, by yourselves, knowing it’s all going to be decided by what you and your opponent do? That thought soothes me some now, as well as the fact that we lost to McDowell, a true gentleman.
But mostly, I remember The Room that night.
The Room is everything.
So, when someone messes up this week, when someone takes the blame and someone takes the glory, I’d hope you might be able to try and cast aside stats and swing thoughts, and think about The Room. Know that someone who goes 0-3 may have said something to another player on the team that won that player a point. That not a player on both teams in those rooms wouldn’t volunteer to go 0-5 if it meant they would still win the cup.
The Ryder Cup takes place just as much in The Room, away from the eyes off the public and the media, as it does on the golf course.
Enjoy the week. There’s absolutely nothing like it.