The Ryder Cup: The First Tee

When I was in high school, somehow I managed to get on my class’s Gym Night relay team. I know I wasn’t a senior because I beat the guy who ran the anchor leg for them. So I probably was a junior; could have been a sophomore.

So after all the demonstrations of the classic gymnastics skills; the basketball court was set up for the obstacle course relay race. It began in one corner of the gym and made a giant “S” up and down the court to the opposite corner on the other end. But that was just to get through the obstacle course.

Then, after coming out of the tires, you had to make a right turn, race across the baseline to the sideline, make another right and race down the sideline to the Start/Finish line.

Now this is a very antiseptic description of the race and it leaves out a very important part, the crowd…of teenagers. The gym was packed to the rafters. And they became a factor as soon as our teammates shot out of the blocks. As soon as Joey and I took our stance at the bottom of the rope climb, classmates began shouting encouragement to us that only grew louder as we crouched for that first leap onto the rope.

The thing about the rope was that it wasn’t just a burst of performance that released the crowd’s excitement, like say a vault on the horse. It was a long climb somewhere up into the rafters. So, being tagged by our teammates just lit their fuse, tapped into the very core of their anticipation and excitement and the gym exploded.

As we hunched our way up to the disk, the noise, already loud from the earlier legs, became solid white. You could feel it. It was a tangible thing. If OSHA had existed at the time, the school would have been fined because Joey and I didn’t have ear plugs. It was a high-pitched scream — times the hundreds of people who where in there — with no way to determine where any of it was coming from: it was a solid mass.

Once we hit our disks, it was a virtual free fall back to the safety of the mats on the gym floor. But all that did was make the kids screaming for the leader scream louder. And the kids encouraging the trailer to scream louder still. And then the “S” with the hurdle and the this and the that and finally the tires. I was leading at that point, the screams pushing me up and down the court.

But as I stepped out of the last tire, the heel of my very cool, but highly impractical, track shoe caught in the tire and I ran out of it in about two steps. So I had to get across the baseline, make that last right turn at the sideline and careen my way down the sideline, my left foot flailing and flipping on the waxed gym floor to the finish.

The sight of Shoeless Bill’s whirring white sock just add more torture to the tortured voices that would still be rasping hours later. I remember leaning into the finish from too far away to instinctively make up for that slick sock. And then Joey and I ending up in a heap on the mat, my lean having saved the day.

It took some minutes for the screams and roars to begin to subside.

And it took some minutes after that for the adrenaline coursing through my body to slowly let me come back down to earth. The adrenaline that had literally picked me up and carried me around the serpentine course at 100% full out, effort rippling through my body, going as fast as I could but feeling like I was slow-walking through a dream. You know, the one where someone is chasing you but you can’t get away?

It might not be quite that raucous, but that’s a little bit of the flavor of what it’s like on the first tee on the first day of the Ryder Cup.

The stands loom over the tee and the rope lines string the gallery down the rough line on either side of the fairway. The ardor of the crowd is unmatched in any other venue in golf except for the par-3 16th stadium hole at the Phoenix Open. Because this isn’t just cheering for your favorite player. This is cheering for your country! This is exhorting each of your team members to win one for your country, to win one for you, to ratify that you are a member of the finest team to ever walk the face of the earth.

At least that’s how it starts out until that first drive gets flared out into the deep right rough and the balloon is burst.

And since you know that happens, you don’t want to be that guy. Not this year, not this day, not this time. Especially if you’re the first pair out.

Nick Faldo was on the Golf Channel Thursday night talking about the 2008 team he captained. And one of the first things he did was take the entire team down to the first tee in that quieter time and just ask them to look out at the hole. Look to see the design of it and the shot that would be required. But most of all to really take in the moment and see the tranquility of the hole, the stillness of the hole. So that when they were transported three days ahead to Friday’s first tee shots, they would be able to conjure up that tranquil vista when they looked out, and not be as affected by the solid wall of people generating that solid wall of boisterous cheers.

USA! USA! USA!

Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole!

And then it all melds into one…and grows louder as they try to shout over each other…and grows deeper coming from the very essence of the crowd.

And you are standing in a fishbowl perhaps ten yards wide by twenty yards long. And there is nowhere to go except down the fairway after you hit your shot.

Yesterday, I mentioned the story Davis Love told on himself about his first time on the first tee of his first Ryder Cup. He was begging Tom Kite to let him shift to the even holes so he wouldn’t have to hit the first tee shot of the Ryder Cup on that first tee. Kite told him he’d be fine and they went on to beat Olazabal and Ballesteros.

Thursday night Colin Montgomery and Faldo were on the Golf Channel reminiscing about Montgomery’s first time with Faldo as his senior partner. They had decided that Faldo would take odds and Montgomery the evens. But as Faldo was warming up on the range, all he could hit was a fade and that wouldn’t work on the the odd holes. So as they’re walking to the tee, he pulls rank and tells Montgomery that he’s taking the even holes and Montgomery has that first tee shot. They won their match too.

Both of these stories to illustrate the incredible pressure that even these great players faltered under.

To survive, they have to know themselves to their very core, because it’s not like Gym Night where you can run through the adrenaline. This is a true pressure cooker that has you immobilized until you hit that shot and head down the dew cut to the relief of that fairway.

In that kind of extraordinary environment, they can center themselves, settle their minds onto the shot they’re going to hit, crack a polite smile and wave as they are introduced and then stride up and hit the shot they’re clinging to in their mind’s eye.

It’s why they are so great. It’s why they are our champions.

It’s why we love the Ryder Cup.

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