The Ryder Cup’s 13th Man
Whether lining the tees and fairways of each Ryder Cup course en mass or gracing their respective couch's with similar excitement and enthusiasm, Team Europe's 13th man, the fans, have played a major role in their success throughout the last three decades.
From time-to-time, in the heat of contention on a Sunday afternoon, sporadic roars will reverberate around a venue, reaching a crescendo in the dogfight of a Major Championship.
Then, one day, you find yourself on the first tee at The Ryder Cup. Not only are the world’s eyes upon you and the weight of a continent upon your shoulders, but you are surrounded, almost engulfed, by thousands of fans, all packed in and in the mood to sing.
The nature of the chants will depend on whether you are playing at home or away, whether they are with you or against you. And your ability to perform firmly depends on your ability to respond to this – to either feed off the partisan energy, or to shut it out and control the abounding adrenaline.
There is nothing quite like the unique atmosphere at The Ryder Cup. For players accustomed to operating within their own bubble of tranquillity, it is the closest feeling to football match, with home advantage unquestionably coming into play.
Ask any Ryder Cup player for their abiding memory of golf’s greatest team competition and chances are their answer will, in some way, relate to the crowd. Whether it be their first tee experience, prevailing in a hard-fought match or, like Graeme McDowell at The Celtic Manor Resort two years ago, securing the winning point, the crowd is undoubtedly the omnipotent Ryder Cup factor, back-dropping every memorable moment.
To coin a sporting cliché, the crowd can be the 13th man in a Ryder Cup Team, or that vital extra half point.
In Wales, just as at The K Club and the Belfry previously, Europe’s players were carried to victory on home shores by the tide of the home support. Despite the rain and the mud, the fans’ passion was uncompromised, undiminished and unforgettable.
From the well-humoured, patriotic, first tee chants of “You’ve got Big Mac, we’ve got G-Mac” or “Two Molinaris” exchanged with the pockets of American fans, to the celebratory 17th green wave of emotion following McDowell’s critical Singles victory over Hunter Mahan, the Celtic Manor crowd more than played its part in Europe’s 14½-13½ victory two years ago.
In Chicago, of course, the nature of the challenge will be entirely different. Europe’s fans will be heavily outnumbered – most likely ten-to-one – in a city renowned for its fervent sporting appetite.
One of the key contributing factors in the United States’ 16½-11½ victory at Valhalla Golf Club was Captain Paul Azinger’s ability to galvanize the home support, and Europe will certainly have to overcome more partisanship if they are to retain The Ryder Cup.
With only one rookie, Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts, in the team, José María Olazâbal’s men will certainly not want for experience in The Ryder Cup cauldron. Furthermore, seven out of the 12 European players – Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia, Paul Lawrie, Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and Lee Westwood – have all previously tasted a Ryder Cup on American soil, while Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer have both won Major Championships on the other side of the Atlantic.
Yet, as any Ryder Cup Captain or player will concede, the home crowd, and the way you can handle it, remains a crucial component of any match.
“Those little things obviously help,” said Olazábal, who tasted victory in America at Muirfield Village in his first Ryder Cup appearance in 1987. “The support of the crowd is massive. We saw that in Ireland. We saw that in Wales. It's huge.
“The only thing is that we have to be prepared. That's part of my job. The players know that the atmosphere is going to be electrifying. So I need to prepare them for that; tell them that they cannot allow themselves to be bothered by it.
“They have to be really prepared for it and luckily the guys have the experience, which should make things a little bit easier for me.”
While Olazábal's task in this respect could be considered crowd containment, American counterpart Davis Love III will be looking for his 12 men to use the energy generated by the thousands of vocal Chicagoans to their advantage.
“Each shot is the same level of importance and we are going to preach that at The Ryder Cup, but how are we actually going to do it, that's the trick,” said Love. “When you walk out on the first tee and there's 30,000, 40,000 people and they are chanting, all that stuff goes out the window really quick when you get really nervous, and you start thinking about winning or losing.
“The secret is going to be: How do you turn that off? We watched a lot at the Olympics of athletes somehow channelling that into their personal best time or their world record time, or 15 year olds and 17 year olds handling that incredible pressure and winning Gold Medals. How do we translate that excitement and energy and nervousness of three days of golf into incredible feats?
“We want to get them fired up and we don't want them to be nervous. We want to get them thinking about winning but we don't want them thinking about results on the first tee Friday morning. We want them to be relaxed and trying to win. That's going to be the trick.
“I think it's been the trick of professional golfers for a long time. Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman and Tiger Woods are better at it than everybody else for some reason, so we just need to get Tiger to fill us in on how all 12 players can do it.”
A different experience lies in wait at Medinah for Europe’s best, then, as Olazábal leads his 12 charges into the lion’s den; but just as danger, drama and intimidation is in store in Illinois, there is equally the opportunity for the European dozen to make themselves legends, to leave the American Midwest with team golf’s ultimate prize.
And whether you are watching from the fairways at Medinah, or on your couch back home, make sure you shout the loudest for Team Europe as we look to take victory not just on the course, but in the Twittersphere too, as you prove yourselves to be the game's most valuable 13th man.