Not even players as experienced as Tiger Woods and Colin Montgomerie are immune to Ryder Cup nerves. (Getty Images)

Ryder Cup pressure-cooker brings out the nerves in even golf's best

Actors know all about it; so, hopefully, do politicians, brain surgeons, automobile mechanics, airline pilots and, believe it or not, journalists on deadline. You're skilled, you're dedicated, you bear huge responsibility on your shoulders ... and you're nervous as hell. Welcome to the first tee at the Ryder Cup!

By Paul Trow, Special to

We’ve all been there.

Oodles of constructive preparation ... out on the range, down in the practice bunker, back on the putting green.

Then your name is called and suddenly the eyes of your playing partners, and a few loitering spectators -- probably uninterested, though you’re in denial about this -- swivel your way as you strive to remember whatever primeval force it was you were so methodically warding off during that frenetic build-up.

Ah yes: first-tee nerves. Mustn’t make a fool of myself; sweaty palms; can’t get out of my mind who’s watching; damn, there I go again -- another screw-up. Still, who cares? It’s only a friendly Sunday morning four-ball, isn’t it? Nothing riding on it other than a sheet of folding matter bearing the image of someone named Abraham Lincoln ($5 to our international readers).

And yet… at the time it matters more than anything on earth. And it always will… So imagine how much it matters to people who are really good at what they do as they stride into the ultimate office of their vaulting ambitions -- the first tee in the first match on the first morning of the Ryder Cup?

Global meltdown ain’t the half of it. The scale of differential between success and failure is astronomic; and for those who fall short, they’d better trust in astrology if they’re to get through the next four plus hours with their self-belief -- actually their belief in anything -- intact.

It took a damp, dank Irish morning at The K Club four years ago for Tiger Woods, for so long golf’s Sun King, to prove that even he could imitate Icarus. The only difference is that instead of suffering instant burnout, he sunk into a watery grave. His partner Jim Furyk had already shown him the fairway, so out came the most sensible and safest of 3-woods, down onto the tee went his beloved Nike ball, and up leapt those irrational hobgoblins that will always lurk beneath the surface of that confounded River Liffey.

Oh, if the mightiest of all can so succumb, then what prayer is there for the rest of us? None, obviously; but it must be acknowledged that several battle-hardened Tour veterans have found a way to embrace and conquer this most nerve-wracking of experiences. And equally it should be acknowledged that, superstars though they all may be (at least within their own comfort zones), they are generally prepared to admit to the same propensity for stage fright that we all suffer. In some cases, it must be said, with touching humility.

Curtis Strange (Getty Images)
Jay Leno or David Letterman give much gold for divine nuggets from celebrity superstars when the ticklish subject of “how do you feel when millions turn up hoping you’ll make a fool of yourself?” arises.

But, believe it or not, it doesn’t take a priest’s confessional to extract the truth from nervous sporting folk. Catharsis is a powerful tool; and by confessing to the demons they’ve faced, our golfing heroes hope, somehow, that they can purge themselves.

The result makes for fascinating reading henceforward. So without further ado, let’s clear the stage -- and crank up the tension -- for far better golfers than you and I will ever be. Even in our dreams!

“On the tee,” as it should be, is current U.S. Captain Corey Pavin, who recalls his first and only time as a voluntary trailblazer at his second Ryder Cup in 1993, through gritted teeth.

“I was nervous as hell, if I can say that,” he says, almost in stream-of-consciousness mode. “The 18th hole at The Belfry was a really tough driving hole for me, and Lanny Wadkins was my partner, so I wanted him to hit the tee shot on 18 if the match got that far. That meant I’d be hitting the first shot of the Ryder Cup. When they announced the USA had the honor, I was trying to figure out how to control my emotions. I can’t even describe how nervous I was. I put the tee in the ground and I went to put the ball on the tee and I realized my hand was shaking so much, I decided, let’s just drop the ball and hopefully it will stay on the tee. Thank goodness, it did. It stayed right there and I was able to compose myself and hit a good drive down the middle; and Lanny and I went on to win our match.

“The nerves you feel at the Ryder Cup are nothing like you feel anywhere else in golf. I’ve won the U.S. Open, and it felt like a walk in the park compared to the Ryder Cup.”

Fast forward to Oak Hill Country Club in 1995, and Pavin’s opposite number this year -- Colin Montgomerie. Paired with Sir Nick Faldo in the opening four-ball, Monty found he had been designated to step up to the plate. “As professional golfers, we are all faced with pressure situations from time to time but, believe me, the pressure facing the first shot in a Ryder Cup is as intense as it gets,” he recalls. “Suddenly, it became an achievement just to stand up and Nick, in his infinite wisdom, decided it was my tee shot! I stood on the first tee and I was just gulping air like mad. The electricity was fantastic, massive.

“We were paired, ironically, against Corey and Tom Lehman. We’d practiced together well and Nick said he felt it was a 3-wood, so we went with that. A driver is much easier to hit off the first tee when you’re not breathing, but I teed the ball down, took a practice swing and, thankfully, managed to make contact, which is all you can really ask for in those situations.”

Padraig Harrington (Getty Images)
In 1977 Faldo was the junior partner in a Ryder Cup pairing with Peter Oosterhuis, and fell foul of a similar decision in his debut, aged 20, at Royal Lytham & St. Annes with its par-3 first. “Peter told me I’d be first off the tee. I was a bag of nerves and I decided to go off and calm myself down by hitting 20 extra 5- and 6-irons to warm up. Of course, when I stepped on the tee I saw instantly it was a 4-iron shot. Needless to say, I promptly missed the green. Thereafter, it was the first time I’d ever experienced my stomach churning for a whole round. I told my team in 2008, there’s no way you can possibly imagine what it will be like [until you’ve done it].”

Bobby Jones, who knew a thing or two about intestinal fortitude despite never having endured the Ryder Cup experience, identified the problem straight away. “There are golfing nerves, major championship nerves, and then there are Ryder Cup nerves,” he opined with rich, and not entirely reassuring, wisdom.

Jones, perhaps, hadn’t taken into consideration the level of nervous exhaustion the Ryder Cup induces in significantly involved non-combatants. Davis Love III, one of Pavin’s vice-captains at Celtic Manor and a veteran of six matches, ended up feeling particularly sorry for his caddie, Frank Williams, on his debut in 1993. “He looked worse than I felt. And I didn’t feel very good at all!”


Consider, if you will, the conclusions of some of the greatest names the sport of golf has known when it comes to standing center stage on the first tee at the Ryder Cup…

“When you stand on the first tee of a Ryder Cup, it’s like nothing else you ever do in this game.” -- Curtis Strange

“At a certain point it dawns on you, this is bigger than you. Now you’re playing for your country.” -- Dave Stockton

“I was the first match off in 1969. Sam Snead was our Captain and I’ll tell you what, I could hardly put the peg in the ground.” -- Raymond Floyd

“Arnold [Palmer] and I were first off in alternate shot, and he would drive on the odd-number holes. That was fine; I wanted him to hit the first shot, because that’s a choking deal there! Then I chunked the approach and he asked me, ‘did you have a bad lie?’ I said, ‘Arnold, I can’t even get a breath here, I’m choking so bad.’ He started laughing and said, ‘welcome to the Ryder Cup!’” -- Dave Marr

“My hands were shaking. I expected to be nervous, but not that nervous. You don’t know what the pressure of a Ryder Cup is like unless you’ve been in one.” -- David Toms

“In the end, the bottom line is, it’s just us 12 against those 12 over there. And you should look at the guy you’re playing and say to yourself on that first tee, ‘I just don’t want him to celebrate at my expense.’” -- Paul Azinger

“I was way more nervous on the opening day of the Ryder Cup than the first round of any major. Every Ryder Cup match is like being in the last group on Sunday in a major.” -- Tom Lehman

“The atmosphere, it’s always the same, you could cut it with a knife. As soon as you get off the first tee it’s fine. It’s very nerve-wracking for all the players, with no exemptions, and you want to get that moment to savor and at the same time just play and enjoy it. It’s very difficult to enjoy it when you’re under that much pressure, but I think that’s one of the big keys of the week.” -- Darren Clarke

“The pressure teeing off the first day is probably as nervous as I’ve ever been. Coming down the stretch at the Open, I had a good feel for my game and really wasn’t too concerned about the outcome. I was just trying to hit the right shots and make a few putts, which I was able to do. The first tee at my first Ryder Cup was new territory for me. It didn’t take me long to settle down, but that first tee shot is pretty exciting.” -- Justin Leonard (on his debut in 1997)

“I couldn’t see the golf ball. I was just so nervous, I couldn’t even see it.” -- Padraig Harrington (on his debut in 1999)

“You could drop a shot between the locker room and the first tee.” -- David Feherty

“I was so nervous in 1997 I couldn’t get my ball to stay on the tee. It’s quite funny watching it now. I look quite calm and collected, and I almost look as though I know what I’m doing. But my hands were shaking and my eyes glazed over a little bit and it was obviously a completely different experience to what I’d been used to. If you play such a long qualifying campaign to try to get onto the team, the pressure builds, and finally it’s upon you and all of a sudden you have to try and hit the fairway, and do your thing.” -- Lee Westwood (on his debut)

“On the first tee with Ian Woosnam, against Lee Janzen and Jim Gallagher, I was a nervous wreck. I live only 30 minutes away from The Belfry so I know the course inside out, but when I stood on the first tee and looked up, I remember seeing a tree I’d never seen before. I thought, ‘who planted that overnight?’ But of course no one had and I look at it now and it’s miles away. But it wasn’t then. By the end [of the week] I was mentally shattered.” -- Peter Baker, who beat Pavin in the singles that week

“We weren’t intimidated, but we had a sort of inkling that they might be slightly better than us.” -- Mark James, partnered by Tommy Horton, on facing Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in the opening foursomes in 1977 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes

“Anybody who doesn’t feel his legs trembling must be a dead man.” -- Jose Maria Olazabal

This story appears courtesy of the 2010 Official Ryder Cup Guide. Click here to view the online version or click here to purchase your own copy for $5.95. The 2010 Official Ryder Cup Guide is also available at all Barnes and Noble bookstores.

©2003-2012 The PGA of America / Ryder Cup limited / Turner Sports Interactive. All rights reserved.
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