If you’re reading this, the Ryder Cup is happening, and you’re likely in a commercial break. Get used to that, and thanks for being here! It’s better than the Scoop There it Is ad — I promise.
On a recent No Laying Up podcast, Scotland’s Jamie Kennedy (Director of Social Media for GOLFTV) made an awesome point, which I’ve reproduced below (edited for clarity).
Look closely at the demeanor of the guys when they walk onto the first tee of a Ryder Cup… It’s like its own event compared to the rest of the Ryder Cup. The first tee, the first tee shot, the first day — it’s impossible to ignore.
If you watch guys walking to the first tee of the Tour Championship or Augusta, they can keep it under wraps, tip their cap, and hit their shot. You can’t do that at the Ryder Cup. It’s so loud, it slaps you across the face, you can’t ignore it.
If you watch the Europeans, they tend to embrace it. They tend to smile, and wave, and cheer on the crowd… even if it’s a US crowd they might acknowledge it. I think the Americans work so hard to try and not do that, that it’s actually counterproductive to them.
It’s the same thing with holing a putt, and having a bit of a release. JT has it a bit, and Spieth has it, but most of the time, it doesn’t feel like what’s natural to them, whereas the Europeans just seem to be playing more naturally.
I could not agree any more, and absolutely love diving into these types of moment-based minutiae. We wait for two years (three in this case) to consume every morsel of a three-day golf tournament, so I think it’s worth it to go deep on something that is universally agreed as one of the greatest cauldrons of pressure in golf.
Before analyzing today’s first-tee scenes, let’s take a look at a few from the recent past, which all serve in some way to bolster Jamie’s point.
2008 Ryder Cup — Singles
First, of course, there’s Boo Weekley at Valhalla. During Sunday singles, Weekley roasted a drive down the center of the fairway, mounted his driver, channeled his inner Adam Sandler, and rode that sucker off the tee box and straight into our hearts.
Doin’ the bull dance. Feelin’ the flow. Workin’ it. Workin’ it. Weekley and his American squad went on to win that Ryder Cup convincingly, though this silly, excited, let’s-get-it attitude has been noticeably lacking from the US team in recent years.
Sidenote — a major plug for my friend Sean Melia’s podcast about Boo Weekley. It’s 20 minutes long and sheds some really interesting light on one of the more fascinating and underappreciated characters in recent Ryder Cup history.
2012 Ryder Cup — Saturday Foursomes
Everyone remembers Bubba Watson as the guy who started the tradition of pumping up the crowd before, and during, the first tee shot.
Which is weird, because it wasn’t his idea. It was Ian Poulter’s.
Watch how long Poulter waits for the crowd to get properly amped up, and listen to how shocked the announcers (particularly Faldo) get as everyone starts to realize what’s happening. It’s such a break from protocol that the crowd can’t even get around to the idea without some significant coaxing from the man in the arena.
Bubba deserves some credit here, of course — he’s genuinely ecstatic, the smile on his face says it all. Neither player hits the fairway, but that’s hardly the point. Both embrace the moment, and seem thrilled to be representing their sides in the crucible of pressure.
Of course, we all remember what happened in 2012. Poulter lives for the big moments, and his delight in raising the crowd on the first tee was nothing compared to the joy he felt in shutting every single American fan up on Sunday.
2014 Ryder Cup — Fourballs
Webb Simpson pop up. That’s all you need to hear.
If we’re going a touch deeper, though, a few other fun things happened here. It was the first swing of the competition, and captain Tom Watson gave it to a guy with noted troubles finding the clubface. Not good.
Also, legendary first tee announcer Ivor Robson announced Bubba Watson’s name, rather than Webb’s, when Webb was about to tee off. That could only have added to the first tee nerves, even though Webb did make a small and good-natured show of acknowledging the slip up.
Bubba, now two years into his newfound role as a first-tee hype man, did his usual pump up and then laced one out there, but it was too late. Simpson had sealed his fate by putting an idiot mark on his hybrid, and Stenson/Rose won the match 5&4.
This Ryder Cup was fun to attend (I still remember the rippling game of telephone that snaked around to me and my friends, standing to the rear right of the first green, when people realized that Webb had skied one), but the US team got annihilated.
2020 (Don’t Call Me 2021) Ryder Cup — Foursomes
Without further ado, here’s a breakdown of every player’s first tee actions and reactions (with a shout out to Sir Isaac Newton, who, notably, also never graduated from SMU’s physics department)
The crowd is here. Let’s see the competitors.
Match 1: Jon Rahm & Sergio Garcia v Justin Thomas & Jordan Spieth
The Spaniards walked out of the first tee tunnel before their American counterparts, quietly connecting with a large squad of European team members on the first tee. Fleetwood, Hatton, and a few other players who were sitting during the morning sessions formed a guard of honor on the tee box.
The home squad came out with a few sheepish but noticeable waves to the crowd (above). When players were introduced, Rahm and Sergio stayed tight together and acknowledged the crowd as a pair:
…while Thomas and Spieth broke apart to give a 180-degree wave to their home fans:
Sergio may as well have been playing a solo round in Texas when he was introduced, offering nothing in the way of a hello. He then took a long time staring into the cold Wisconsin sun before launching his tee ball:
…which ended up finding a gross lie in a left-side bunker. On the other hand, JT gave a small hat tip, waggled a few times, and smoked a driver down the middle:
Though both teams came away from the hole with 4s, I’m confident in this call:
FIRST TEE ADVANTAGE IN MATCH 1: THOMAS AND SPIETH
Match 2: Paul Casey & Viktor Hovland v Dustin Johnson & Collin Morikawa
This was completely fascinating from start to finish. Let’s get into it.
First off, as you see, Casey and Hovland started their first tee stance about as far apart as their home countries of Norway and England are on a map. After a quick crowd wave during the introduction:
…the veteran Casey realized his mistake, and scooted in beside little Viktor. Of course, this was probably for the post-intro photo op, but the fact that they began the moment so far away seemed a bit telling, for me.
DJ and Morikawa gave the crowd a minor wave, and then all four players stood on the tee for what felt like an eternity. I think they had finished up with the photos, but nobody really knew when to break the huddle. Small but funny moment.
But now we come to the best moment of the day so far. Paul Casey teed his ball up, gave a quick wave, then began his pre-shot routine with a few practice swings. The crowd, in unison, did the thing that college football stadiums do when the kicker’s running up to launch a kickoff. They started with a low “ohhhhh” and when Casey made his downswing, exploded into a huge “WWWWAYYYYY!”
It was awesome, and a marked improvement in first tee crowd efforts, and crucially, CASEY LOVED IT!
The next time he went for a practice swing, he stuttered at the top and never made a downswing — then looked up and grinned as the crowd realized what he had done.
In an instant, the European vet had the American fans eating from the palm of his hand. He smoked a drive down the right side of the fairway, whereas rookie Morikawa tugged his drive into the left rough.
Sure, the Euros couldn’t capitalize and DJ pitched to 6 feet, leaving the Americans 1-Up after one hole, but still…
FIRST TEE ADVANTAGE IN MATCH 2: CASEY AND HOVLAND
Match 3: Lee Westwood & Matt Fitzpatrick v Brooks Koepka & Daniel Berger
Because it’s NBC/Golf Channel, and we can’t have nice things, the TV coverage missed most of this intro. Which seemed just as well — when the players were introduced, Westwood raised a sheepish driver to his waist while looking downwards, and Koepka/Berger didn’t do one thing as they were off to the side and surrounded by their teams.
However, when Berger was announced to hit his tee shot, he did offer a single, solitary “get pumped” type gesture, which we like! Or I guess, we’ll take it! Either way, it wasn’t much…
…but with zero signs of life from Matty Fitz and old man Westwood still shaking off the cobwebs, it’s good enough to snag the W.
FIRST TEE ADVANTAGE IN MATCH 3: BERGER AND KOEPKA
Match 4: Rory McIlroy & Ian Poulter v Xander Schauffele & Patrick Cantlay
You had to know this was only going to go one way. They might as well melt Samuel Ryder’s golden trophy down and shape it into an Ian Poulter bobblehead doll. Look at this man and tell me he doesn’t live for this shit.
Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay are certainly no slouches. In fact, both of them are demonstrably better golfers at this point in time than Ian Poulter is. But that does not stop them from walking out like a pair of nervous boys going to their first-ever middle school dance.
It’s a good thing Cantlay hit the first tee shot, as X was so terrified that he couldn’t even unlatch his arms from behind his back to acknowledge the home crowd:
Tying this back to Jamie’s point at the top — the first tee of the Ryder Cup is so crucial that Europe seems to have abandoned golf strategy in favor of keeping their team’s psyche as intact as possible. I don’t claim to be an expert on Whistling Straits, but the prevailing theme from the announcers seemed to be that the longer hitters should tee off on the odd holes, given the way that the course sets up.
In all four matches, the Europeans had the shorter hitter of the pair tee off on the first hole. The four Europeans who hit first tee shots — Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey, Lee Westwood, and Ian Poulter — are the four oldest members of team Europe, and have a combined 29 Ryder Cups between them.
The rest of team Europe have nine Ryder Cups between the eight of them.
In a Saturday morning foursomes match with your buddies, you probably want the bomber hitting driver off the tee on the longest holes. But in the Ryder Cup, when the sport’s pressure cooker gets ratcheted up to its highest possible setting, you want experience. You want self-confidence.
You want this guy.