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Fans show their patriotism during the early going of Fridaqy's Foursome matches.(Redington/Getty Images)

Emotions high as 37th Ryder Cup gets under way

By Dave Shedloski, Senior Correspondent-

Print News

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Europeans sing. Americans chant.

U.S. Captain Paul Azinger on the first tee.(Cannon/Getty Images)

The 37th Ryder Cup Matches exploded early Friday, well before the first shot was ever struck by Ireland's Padraig Harrington. At 7:45 a.m. EDT, 20 minutes before foursomes matches commenced at Valhalla Golf Club, American and European partisans began a showdown of vocal chords.

The home crowd chanted continuously. USA! USA!

The visiting fans, some dressed like leprechauns with faux beards and huge green felt stovepipe hats, others like Spanish matadors, countered with shouts, but then broke into their familiar "Ole" song. They followed up with three or four other little jingles, including what could only have been an impromptu tune with just four lyrics: "Where's your Tiger gone?"

That, of course, was in reference to absence No. 1 Tiger Woods, sidelined after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery in June following his U.S. Open triumph.

"Remarked one U.S. journalist: "You know, it just doesn't cut it for our fans to sing, 'I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy.'"

So it was left to Phil Mickelson, No. 2 in the world and the most experienced member of Team USA, to lead off for America after Harrington, playing in the opening group for Europe for the third consecutive time, split the fairway. Mickelson drove it 35 yards past him, but Harrington's 10-foot birdie at the first gave Europe the lead after the opening hole of the opening match in the fourth straight Ryder Cup.

Talk about momentum.

Talk about nerves. U.S. captain Paul Azinger, choosing to stand behind the tee as his four teams teed off, could stop pacing. At one point, he held up his right hand, and shook it to suggest he was uptight. But he really wasn't.

"Isn't this great?" he asked rhetorically, looking around and taking in the boisterous atmosphere. "This is so much fun."

He wanted to make sure his players weren't nervous and were going to try to have fun, giving them a short but direct speech before they ventured onto the course.

"I told them to embrace this and play great, leave nothing out there," Azinger, a former PGA champion said. "Nobody expects us to do anything. Nobody expects us to win, so play with passion and like you have nothing to lose."

Well, they've lost enough

Two final observations worth noting:

First, if you wonder if Europe presents a better "team" spirit, consider that each of their teams walked on the first tee together. The Americans, except for the final group of Jim Furyk and favored son Kenny Perry, marched on separately.

Naturally, the cheers for Perry were raucous and earsplitting and the personable veterans raised both arms to wave in appreciation.

Secondly, some of the European press milling about were wondering how to ask Azinger about his remarks from the previous evening at a U.S. pep rally where he instructed the American faithful to "cheer missed putts" when the visitors misfire.

They decided to wait. Azinger did volunteer that the pep rally served to educate the fans that the Ryder Cup is unlike a regular stroke-play tournament. He also repeated his desire for the fans to be America's "13th man."

"They cheer against us over there, and I just wanted our fans to know they could do the same here," the captain said. "There was no ill intent. Just wanted our fans to really get behind us, and to know that it was OK. That was all."

Of course, it always helps for the Yanks to give the home crowd something to cheer about. America didn't forge its first lead in a match, however, until 90 minutes into the round.