What makes the emotional thrill ride that is the Ryder Cup so special
PARIS – Tick . . . tick . . . tick. They’re on the clock now at the Ryder Cup. Only hours until the two teams walk onto the No. 1 tee, with its singing and its chants and its feel-it-in-the-gut tension, when it will seem as if half of France is there to watch.
How did Ian Poulter put it? “You can’t help but go to sleep (Wednesday night), thinking about your tee shot.”
The Ryder Cup is different. Oh, how it is different. From that No. 1 tee ultimate experience, which even the giants talk about with unabashed awe, to No. 18, where U-turns happen so often -- in fate, not putts.
It is different, this biennial exercise in anguish, because no one hides how good it feels, or how much it hurts. An emotional thrill ride, all for a 17-inch high trophy named after a seed merchant.
Justin Rose: “You never get comfortable with it. I don’t think you can ever really walk on to that first tee Friday and go, yeah, this feels normal. Of course it feels good. You feel alive.”
Patrick Reed: “I think the biggest thing is, it’s a head-to-head battle. It’s throwing two guys in the ring, and now it’s throwing two guys on the golf course, and whoever plays the best is the one walking out of it.”
Tiger Woods: “Basically, it’s the final round of a tournament on the very first hole, and every match you tee it up.”
It is different because of how much victory can stir emotions, especially for two aging legends who desperately want to hold the Ryder Cup on European soil, before they run out of chances.
“I’m pretty sure Tiger and Phil would start crying if they did win,” Bubba Watson was saying. “And I’ll probably cry too.”
So can losing.
“We’re playing for the United States . . . I think that’s pretty simple,” Brooks Koepka said. “Yeah, there’s no money, but there’s definitely a lot of pride, egos, a lot of reputation and I guess legacy, too, a little bit. You definitely don’t forget when you lose a Ryder Cup."
Which the Americans have done in Europe going back to 1993, a 25-year streak that lives in infamy.
“I think we all know it’s been a while," Koepka said. "We’ve been told a million times, we’ve read it, guys even on the team now have told us. It’s pretty simple. We need to win.”
It is different because theirs is a sport where they all sink or swim, pretty much on their own. But not this weekend.
Sergio Garcia: “Golf is such a lonely game throughout the whole year. Sometimes it’s nice to have a friend next to you that is cheering for you. And not only one, but another 10 behind that are doing the same thing.”
It’s different because Michael Jordan made a point of dropping in the U.S. team room and talk about winning. Because both teams at filets and lobster bisque Wednesday night at the Palace of Versailles. King Louis XIV, meet Tiger Woods. Because Le Golf National is not going to sound anything like Augusta this week.
“The Ryder Cup feels like a sporting event,” Koepka said. “It’s loud and people aren’t afraid to boo you. That’s fun. I kind of got a taste of that at Hazeltine. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever done as far as playing golf, in an atmosphere like that “
So said the guy who won two majors this summer.
It’s different because this is the week that even other professional golfers following from afar can turn into giddy fans.
Simpson mentioned watching from his couch in 2016: “I don’t know if I missed a shot. The only time I might have missed a shot, maybe one of my kids got in the way of the TV.”
As Reed and Rory Mcllroy engaged in their epic singles duel, Simpson and his wife reenacted it – like two kids emulating their heroes. “I was Patrick Reed, she was Rory. We did it in our backyard.”
It is different because of the first tee on Friday morning. Men who have made careers out of never blinking in the face of pressure, talk without reserve about what the Ryder Cup can do to them at that moment; the good and the bad.
Reed, on his first Ryder Cup drive: “I go and step up on the tee, my adrenaline is just through the roof, and I look around and I feel like all the air has just gotten sucked out of the room when they announced us to hit. Yes, I skyed it. I skyed the 3-wood. I hit the fairway, though.”
Jim Furyk: “I was just so wired and jacked up. I hit the 3-wood at Valderrama so far. It might be the longest 3-wood to this day.”
Jordan Spieth: “Probably the most nerve-wracking tee shot I’ve ever hit.”
Jon Rahm: “I’ve had people that have experienced great things in golf tell me that a final tee time in a major, it’s a two out of 10 compared to the first tee at the Ryder Cup.”
Francesco Molinari: “It’s the highest adrenaline and the highest pressure you’re ever going to feel on a golf course.”
And this from a man who felt the full heat of holding a lead in the British Open this past summer.
“You won’t believe me, but it’s nowhere near (the same as the Ryder Cup). It’s probably because you play for a team; you play for a continent in our case. And you know about the tradition and what players have done in the past.”
Justin Thomas: “It sounds, from the stories I’ve heard in the past, there’s nothing I can do to get ready for the first tee shot. I’ve heard multiple stories of guys going into the first tee saying they have odds (numbered holes), and stepping away and saying, ‘I can’t pull the trigger, you need to take it.’”
Webb Simpson talked of popping up a 3-wood for about 205 yards in 2014, then watching the photographers -- who had been stationed down the fairway in the normal landing zone – having to scurry back to get close to his ball. “The most embarrassing part,” he said.
Tommy Fleetwood: “The best piece of advice that Poulter’s given me, and Rory says the same thing, it’s the most special you’ll ever feel. Whatever nerves you’ve felt up to now, times it by 10, and that’s what you have. But this is what you want and this is what we play for, so embrace it, take it all in.”
This year, there is a grandstand large enough for nearly every man, woman and child of Montpelier, Vermont looming in back of the No. 1 tee, which will only amp up the buzz. There is sizeable standing room, too, to go with nearly 7,000 seats. “I think everyone is going to feel that first tee,” Henrik Stenson said.
It’s different because even the mightiest of names are just parts of the drama. Woods, for instance. The epicenter of the sport elsewhere, another member of the cast here. “This week, he’s one of 12,” McIlroy said. “We’re looking to beat the U.S. team, we’re not looking to just beat Tiger Woods.”
It’s different because spectacular shots will be made by individuals, but delivered as a team effort. And there will be spectacular shots. Casey: “The situation demands it.”
But also because of how many times they won’t need a birdie to feel like dancing in the streets, or on the greens. They’re not expecting a low-scoring binge at Le Golf National, and it won’t matter. Spieth: “I don’t think you’ll go anywhere else where you’ll see as many fist-pump pars as you’ll see this week.”
It’s different because men who can take their sport and break it down into the most detailed nuances struggle to describe what is in their own minds and hearts on that first tee Friday morning. And because the very elite of the game are like kids in a toy store. Or a golf shop.
Spieth: “If anything, it’s understated by the players ahead of the tournament. It lives up (to) and passes its hype.”
Poulter: “It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t had to hit that tee shot before."
Rahm: “I feel like a little kid again.”
And now it’s almost Christmas morning. The first tee is open.