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Ryder Cup: A unique atmosphere takes over Hazeltine

CHASKA, Minn. – There has been music blaring at the Hazeltine practice range, and guys walking around wearing American flag pants, singing on their way to No. 1.
 
Yep, here comes the Ryder Cup. The singular, distinct, nothing-like-it Ryder Cup.
 
They don’t sing and wear flag trousers at the Masters. The U.S. Open has no walk-up music on the range. There are no captains out there on the PGA Tour, fretting about what they’re going to say in their opening ceremony speech.  

“I’ll be glad when that’s over,” Davis Love III said Wednesday, sounding as if he was talking about root canal. Words by a player’s brother 4,000 miles away don’t make a dent any other week.
 
The pressure is one of a kind. So is the pain at coming up short. So is nearly everything. “A totally different animal altogether,” European captain Darren Clarke called the Ryder Cup the other day. It is, for example, the one time every two years casual fans must relearn the difference between four-ball and foursomes. The first is best ball, the second is alternate shot. (P.S. The latter is where the U.S. got waxed 7-1 in 2014. The red, white and foursome blues).
 
But that’s part of the magic, right? Its uniqueness. The chance to see what happens when a most individual game is given over for three days to shared pressure, shared accountability, shared fate. All done for no pay, with the pride of a country – or a continent – the prize. Plus a 17-inch, four-pound trophy.

This is the week we tune in to watch 24 players squirm, to watch ‘em sweat, to watch ‘em positively leak emotion – from the brightest highs to the darkest lows. To find out who among them can seize the moment, and who will be sucker-punched by it. Because we have seen what the Ryder Cup can do, even to men who have conquered an Open, or stared down the business end of Augusta National on Sunday.
 
In the end Sunday night, a platoon of some of the best golfers in the world will sit at press conference table and try to get their arms around anguish. They will talk of how well they all got on together, and how much fun they had.
 
But they will feel as if someone just dropped a piano on their heads, and nobody will understand that better than they. Cue the Jim Furyk tape from 2010: “I’ve never cried after losing, other than at the Ryder Cup.”
 
Or Tiger Woods, from 2006: “It doesn’t sit well. Nor should it.”

Or Chris DiMarco in 2004, to the question of what hurts worse, losing a major or a Ryder Cup: “They both piss you off.”

This is the week the passions might as well have just come out of the microwave, especially on the first tee. Everyone talks about it, everyone longs for it. It was Rafa Cabrera-Bello who said Thursday, “I’ve been dreaming about it all my life really.” But can anyone who hasn’t been through it possibly understand what Friday morning will be like at Hazeltine?

Phil Mickelson: “I remember four years ago walking to the first tee with Keegan Bradley for his first Ryder Cup experience, and he’s teeing off, and I’m talking to him, and he’s not hearing a word. His eyes are moving all around, the adrenaline is flowing. And he hit a drive on that first hole that was 375 yards. I had a 78-yard L-wedge shot into that first hole that’s 550-plus yards. And that type of adrenaline rush and excitement, you just can’t recreate it other than in a Ryder Cup.”

Rory McIlroy: “That’s what I’ve tried to sort of reiterate to the rookies that are on our team. You think you know what it’s like and you think you’ve played under pressure, but you haven’t. You haven’t played under what this is going to be like.

“You get feelings that you’ve never had before.”

Colin Montgomerie on the Golf Channel: “It’s a cauldron out there on Friday … It is different. It’s not for everybody.”

Winning a Ryder Cup teaches a man that. Losing might teach him even more.

In 2010, the issue came down to the final match, and there was Hunter Mahan of the U.S., unable to hold off Graeme McDowell. He teared up at the press conference as his teammates supported him.

“If you go up and down the line of the Tour players in Europe and the U.S. and asked them if you would like to be the last guy to decide the Ryder Cup, probably less than half would say they would like to be that guy,” Stewart Cink said that day. “And probably less than 10 percent of them would mean it. Hunter Mahan put himself in that position today.”

Later, Mahan would put in perspective the difference in fighting for a Ryder Cup. “You’re trying to win (a major) for yourself, and the spectators are just rooting on golfers. But here, they are rooting on a whole side and you can feel it. You feel like you’re playing everybody . . . You’re competing for everybody you know.

“The Ryder Cup brings stuff out of you that you don’t know you had, from an emotional sense, from a golf sense, and that’s what’s personal about it.”

Martin Kaymer has won a U.S. Open and PGA, and also clinched the 2012 Ryder Cup for the Europeans with a birdie putt. Which gets asked about more?

“Well, 100 percent the Ryder Cup,” he said Thursday. “The majors, it’s kind of like a selfish win. I won it for myself, for my career, for my caddie. But the Ryder Cup putt includes hundreds of people. It’s almost like in football or soccer, where for some people, that is almost like a religion.

“There’s nothing to compare it with, not the U.S. Open, not with any major.”

This is the week the crowd can become as big a factor as high wind. For the visiting team, it can be like playing Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. And occasionally, something or someone comes along to thicken the plot. Pete Willett, for instance.

This is the week we wonder how the captains are holding up, since the Ryder Cup is the place where men who never hit a shot still carry an enormous burden, with every last decision scrutinized.
          
In 2012, Love talked of waking up at 6 in the morning, with thoughts going through his head, and after losing said, “I’m going to second guess myself for a long time,”

In 2004, Hal Sutton mentioned how “I can’t tell how many times I second-guessed every decision that I made. Am I doing the right thing, am I not doing the right thing? You know, I don’t normally do that a lot.”

In 2006, Tom Lehman arrived at the post-Cup press conference, eyed a bottle of water and said, “What is there I can mix with this water right now, because I probably need something?”

And you never hear media interrogation in golf the way you do of a losing captain on a Ryder Cup Sunday. For Nick Faldo in 2008, it bordered on the Inquisition.

Question to Faldo: “Under your leadership, the European team has changed from a winning team to a losing team. How hard is that for you to take personally?”

Objection from Jose Maria Olazabal: “That question doesn’t deserve an answer.”

The captains and their assistants try to think of everything. Love was out delivering lunch to his players during Wednesday’s practice round. “Very important here,” he said to someone at the time. “If we don’t get the turkey sandwiches to these guys, they’re not going to be happy.”

Consider all the questions going through the captain’s head. Who should I lead off with Friday? What are my best pairings? Who wanted no mayo?

Where else but the Ryder Cup could you get a collection of Furyk, Tom Lehman, Steve Stricker, Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods – all coaching as vice captains? By the way, the American staff has won 19 majors.

This is the week, where, even in a team event, one man can take the spotlight. This time that would be Mickelson, a veteran and vocal leader who has been anything but meek in his opinions of U.S. malfunctions of the past. This Ryder Cup has become a very tricky pin placement for him. Play well, or take the heat. No one at Hazeltine -- absolutely no one – has a smaller margin for error. He is the quarterback in the Super Bowl, the starting pitcher in Game 7 of the World Series.

The signage around the course this week reads, “Where legends are forged.” Infamy could fit in there, too.

Some of the golfers know what’s coming Friday, with all its peculiarities. Others are just starting to get a sense. “I mean, shoot, for a Tuesday, I think I was a little bit nervous on the first tee,” Ryan Moore said after his practice round. “I don’t think that’s ever happened on a Tuesday in my life.”

Welcome to the Ryder Cup. They’re ready at Hazeltine.

WATCH: One of the most intimidating stages in sports: The first tee at the Ryder Cup.