HAVEN – The most nerve-racking shot in golf isn’t the tee shot on the 12th hole at Augusta National, or the wedge into the island green at TPC Sawgrass, or the approach to the 18th green with a one-shot lead in the U.S. Open.
It’s the opening tee shot at the Ryder Cup.
Some of the best players in the world have gotten queasy just walking onto the tee box. Some have feared missing the ball entirely. Veteran golfers, major championship winners, talk about feeling as if their hearts were beating out of their chests, or their hands were shaking uncontrollably as they stuck the tee into the ground, or that they looked down and saw three golf balls.
“It was probably the most nervous I had ever been on the first tee,” Brooks Koepka said of his Ryder Cup debut in 2016.
Golfers aren’t just playing for themselves at the Ryder Cup. They’re playing for their teammates, for their captains, for their country. There is no bigger honor in golf than joining the select few who can call themselves Ryder Cuppers. The reward is in making the team, because they are not paid to play. Win, and they are compensated with glory. Lose, and they are saddled with misery.
When they walk through the tunnel and onto the first tee Friday morning at Whistling Straits for the opening foursomes matches, the four Americans and four Europeans will be greeted by one of the loudest, rowdiest, craziest gatherings in all of sports.
The horseshoe-shaped grandstand around the tee will have been filled long before the sun rises over Lake Michigan. The American fans will be chanting “USA! USA! USA!” The European fans – though there will be fewer than usual because of COVID-related travel restrictions – will be singing “Ole, ole, ole.” Each side will be trying to outdo the other, the chants and cheers bouncing off the risers and up into the chilly morning air, helping to create an electric, hairs-standing-on-end atmosphere.
For the players, it will be like sticking their heads between guitar amps at a heavy metal concert.
The two-year span between Ryder Cups – three this time, because of COVID – and the buildup in the months and weeks leading up to the matches creates an anticipation unrivaled in golf. When the moment finally arrives, the combination of pulse-pounding adrenaline and acute tension is so overwhelming that, for some, the opening tee shot is almost an out-of-body experience.
“I think players that have played in a Ryder Cup can all say the same thing about first tee,” said England’s Tommy Fleetwood, who went 4-1-0 in his Ryder Cup debut three years ago. “It’s an incredible place to be in golf. It's something that we don't experience ever, except for once every two years, but at the same time we all strive and dream to be there and experience whatever that is – whether it is you can't put the ball on the tee, whether it is you feel like you're going to miss the ball, whatever it is. You've dreamt of this your whole life.”
U.S. captain Steve Stricker played in three Ryder Cups and was an assistant captain in three more. He and his assistant captains, and the veterans on his team, have counseled the six rookies on what to expect. But knowing what to expect and experiencing it for the first time are not the same thing.
“Just coming out on to the first tee today was a cool experience, and it will be 10 times more electric come Friday,” Stricker said earlier this week. “They're all a little bit different. Paris (in 2018) was unbelievable. That was like walking into a stadium.
“I remember being very nervous (in his Ryder Cup debut in 2008) but really excited and amped up to get out there to play. My suggestion to the guys and what I've been telling them is to go experience it if you're not playing that first morning. It's just a really cool atmosphere. Nerve-racking, but one that you wait your entire golfing life to experience.”
Asked when he started thinking about the opening tee shot, England’s Ian Poulter said, “When the alarm goes in the morning. You know it's coming. It's been building all week. It's exciting. You know, it's a big tee box. I don't know how many thousand fans we’ve got round there this week. It's probably a little less than it was in Paris, but nevertheless it's a loud environment. It's a nervy atmosphere to be in.”
Justin Thomas made his Ryder Cup debut in 2018. He was so nervous that when he and partner Jordan Spieth discussed who would hit the opening shot in their fourballs match, Thomas said he’d go first because he just wanted to get it over with.
“Jordan was great with me because it being my first match and him (having played) a couple, he'd been in my shoes before and he probably knew the things I was feeling,” Thomas said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. We were walking across the bridge … and he was just like, ‘Do you want to go first or me?’’ And I was like, ‘I'm going,’ and he's like, ‘You got it.’ He understood that. He said, ‘You need to do what you're comfortable with in this moment.’”
At Hazeltine National in 2016, Bubba Watson wanted the fans to keep making noise even as he teed off. Just before he hit his shot, he turned to the crowd and pumped his arms, imploring them to get even louder. Watson knew how uncomfortable it could be when the noise level went from a 150-decibel jet engine roar to eerily, spookily dead quiet.
“The one thing I've heard was it's weird how loud it gets to how quiet it gets when you're about to hit the shot,” said Scottie Scheffler, a U.S. Ryder Cup rookie. “So, I think that's going to be kind of a weird adjustment. I think it was (assistant coach) Zach (Johnson) who told me that. Zach is like, ‘It's just really weird how quiet it gets, because it's so loud and then all of a sudden it's dead silent.’”
Though the fans can occasionally cross the line out on the course – Lee Westwood said he was called a “turd” at Medinah in 2012, and players have been called worse on both sides of the Atlantic – the first tee is more of a festive atmosphere.
“We can go on past history with the other PGA Championships here and the U.S. Open at Erin Hills down the road,” Stricker said. “The sports fans of Wisconsin turn out in droves. They'll be loud. They'll be pro-U.S., which we're hoping for. But we're also hoping they don't cross the line, which we've seen at some other Ryder Cups throughout the years. Yeah, I expect good, rowdy fans. It's going to be rowdy. It's going to be loud, especially the first tee.”
For first-timers, there’s really no way to prepare for it. Even veterans of numerous Ryder Cups get sweaty palms.
The goal is simple: get the ball airborne.