Keegan Bradley remembers the precise moment he came to recognise what a Ryder Cup can do to the human nervous system.
rookie at Medinah in 2012, Keegan was driving into the golf course around 5.30 that Friday morning when he noticed the 17th green grandstand was already full.
“It occurred to me that no one would come anywhere close to that green for more than five hours at least,” he recalls. “And I thought, ‘My God, what have I gotten myself into?’ By the time I got onto the bridge to the first tee, I wasn’t sure I could put one foot in front of the other!”
On Thursday, Lake Michigan sparkled like a jeweller’s window in the morning sun, the vibe around Whistling Straits broadly civil and light-hearted. Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy laughed loudly at one another’s lines by the chipping green while Koepka’s caddy, Portrush’s Ricky Elliott, half-volleyed a Shane Lowry chip back in the Offaly man’s direction.
“Ah look who it is!” beamed Lowry’s caddy, Ardglass’s Bo Martin, in welcome to his old friend.
The first tee was a funfair when they got there – McIlroy, Lowry, Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton tossing water-bottles and golf balls into an appreciative crowd, while it was just a familiar exchange of platitudes and bromides from captains Harrington and Stricker at the opening ceremony.
It felt like the last breath of a charade.
One of the great peculiarities of a modern Ryder Cup is the irrational pressure brought to bear on millionaire athletes playing, in Europe’s case specifically, for a flag with little identifiable meaning. Exactly half of Harrington’s team, after all, is made up of English golfers whose European status was all but revoked by Brexit.
As one US critic put it rather dryly at a previous Ryder Cup in America: “This will be quite the celebration for the Europeans when they all get back home to Florida!”
Yet, that’s the kicker here. Few events in sport tap more forcefully into the idea of identity and a basic sense of place.
Anecdotally, the walk to the first tee can be overwhelming.
Harrington himself remembers standing over his first tee-shot at Brookline in ’99 for what felt an age. “At some point, the thought occurred to me that, ‘None of these people are leaving until I swing the club!’” he recalls.
“It was a terrifying thought!”
Paul McGinley admits that he went into his first Ryder Cup at The Belfry in ’02 “with a lot of fear”, having had to stew for a calendar year on his inclusion in Sam Torrance’s team after 9/11 caused a postponement. A year in which his form essentially nosedived.
But maybe the most colourful recall of a Ryder Cup debut is David Feherty’s from Kiawah Island in ’91.
He remembers it thus: “In the Ryder Cup you spend most of your time trying to look invincible and trying not to show any kind of soft underbelly. I think most people do. It’s about controlling your panic. You’re thinking, ‘Oh God, my head’s going to fall off!’ It’s a strange thing.
“So when I hit my first putt, everything moved but my bowels. It was a 15-foot putt and I left it four feet short and five feet right.
“Sam (Torrance) just quietly walked over to me and said, ‘Pull yourself together or I’m joining them and you’re playing the three of us!”
Nicolas Colsaerts, a rookie at Medinah in 2012, was paired with Lee Westwood in the Friday afternoon fourball against Tiger Woods and this year’s US captain, Stricker.
Colsaerts, as it happened, played wonderfully on his debut, firing eight birdies and an eagle. But he found just walking to that first tee a huge ordeal.
“When you stand on the first tee as a rookie, your hands are shaking, your knees are shaking and you feel like you’re only going to be able to hit the ball fifty yards – at best” he recalled. “The stress and intensity is there and people say you need to embrace it, but let me tell you it’s pretty difficult.
“The ball was just a white blurry spot. I remember telling myself, ‘You wanted to be here, time to show why. There’s no backing out now’. I basically closed my eyes and gave muscle memory a chance to kick in.”
Colin Montgomerie remembers a scene in the European team-room at Kiawah Island that brought home to him how a Ryder Cup breaks people emotionally. He saw Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer crying in a corner whilst all around them felt like bedlam.
“The guy I was playing against, Mark Calcavecchia, was on the beach needing oxygen because he couldn’t breathe,” remembered Monty. “And you’re thinking ,‘God, this isn’t the Walker Cup, this is something else entirely.’
“Olazabal was in tears, he’d given his all. Woosnam wanted to hit everybody. It was awful and, yet, really interesting to see the passion involved and what it meant to those players.”
At Oakland Hills in ’04, the great American vanity play was to pair Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson for the Friday morning fourball, despite the fact the world’s two best players were not actually on speaking terms.
US captain, Hal Sutton, described it as a combination that the “world wanted to see” but, together, Woods and Mickelson had zero chemistry. Worse, they looked frightened.
Tiger pushed his drive 50 yards right of the fairway and Mickelson his 50 yards left, en route to defeat against Montgomerie and Harrington.
“That was when the pressure of playing at the Ryder Cup hit me,” reflected Ian Poulter later. “You had the number one and number two in the world and they couldn’t even get it within 50 yards of the fairway.
“I saw them, they were shaking!”
At Celtic Manor in 2010, Graeme McDowell was two up with four to play in his singles match against Hunter Mahan when a panic attack set in. McDowell says his US Open win at Pebble Beach felt “like a back nine with my dad back at Portrush” compared to what happened him in Wales.
Turning to his caddy on the 15th tee, McDowell remembers saying, “I don’t know if I can do this!’ The nerves were just so intense. I asked my caddy, ‘Is a half enough?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘a half is enough. You’re fine.’
“And I said to him, ‘I’m not fine. I’ll tell you what, if you’re so calm why don’t you play the rest of the way and I’ll carry the bag’. Honestly, I had that conversation with him!”
Some players wake up on that first Friday morning fearful that their match might descend into some kind of tragicomedy. Every green suddenly looks the size of a fireside rug, every memory of the course comes back now, written in Swahili.
For Shane Lowry, Viktor Hovland and Bernd Wiesberger, this then is the beginning of the rest of their lives.
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