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It’s tee time: Ryder Cup brings butterflies to players, patriotism to fans

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Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and team Europe plays his shot as fans look on during practice rounds prior to the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits on September 23, 2021 in Kohler, Wisconsin.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and team Europe plays his shot as fans look on during practice rounds prior to the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits on September 23, 2021 in Kohler, Wisconsin. (Warren Little/Getty Images/TNS)

HAVEN, Wis. — You never forget your first first tee.

That’s a widely accepted truism at the Ryder Cup, which feels more like a football game than a traditional golf tournament. Energy pulsed through the gallery Thursday for the final practice rounds at Whistling Straits, as thousands of fans — urged on by the competitors — cheered and chanted U-S-A from the packed grandstands ringing the No. 1 tee box.

The competition starts in earnest Friday, at 7 a.m. local time, with foursomes. During the morning sessions Friday and Saturday, players on each two-man team play one ball and alternate hitting shots. In the afternoon sessions on that day the format is four-ball, meaning each member of a two-man team plays his own ball. (Sunday, the 12 players on each team square off in singles matches.)

“You step on the first tee and you know you’re going to play two of the best players in the world,” said Jordan Spieth, playing in his fourth Ryder Cup.

Even for seasoned pros, that can be daunting. Three years ago, at Le Golf National in France, Spieth tried to settle the nerves of teammate Justin Thomas, who felt a surge of butterflies as he crossed the player bridge from the chipping green to the first tee. The towering stands surrounding the tee box seemed to climb into the clouds. Those had a seating capacity of 6,928, roughly one-third more than the first-tee stands this year.

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“Jordan was great with me because it being my first match and him playing 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 it was four-ball the first match, and we talked about — four-ball is pretty kind of lenient on who goes first — and he said, ‘Do you want to go first or me?’ I was like, ‘I’m going,’ and he’s like, ‘You got it.’

“He knew it was going to take a couple holes for me to settle in and I rode my horse until I finally got comfortable. It’s a bizarre feeling that’s hard to explain, but I’m pretty excited to experience it again.”

The pressure is on the U.S. team, which has lost four of the last five times to the Europeans, despite having players who dominate in world rankings.

In a typical year there’s more balance among fans, with spectators rooting for the Americans or Europeans. Because of travel restrictions, however, the crowd this year will be lopsided in favor of the U.S. team.

“As the Ryder Cup has evolved I think it’s become bigger every year as it becomes more — I thought last time in France, the size of that grandstand on the first tee and the grandness of it all, it definitely felt like that was the biggest yet,” said European mainstay Rory McIlroy, playing in his sixth.

“The Ryder Cup epitomizes everything that’s great in the game of golf. It’s competitive but there’s also a lot of sportsmanship shown. And obviously there’s partisan crowds and all of that, but that’s part of being in a team environment. You’re going to have a majority of the crowd rooting for one team or the other. I guess that’s not something we get to experience every day.”

For some competitors, it starts even earlier.

“When the alarm goes in the morning,” said Ian Poulter, playing in his seventh. “You know it’s coming. It’s been building all week. It’s exciting. … From the moment you kind of walk out your tunnel to getting that tee peg and attempting to put the ball on the tee, it’s a pretty fun ride.”


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