‘I don’t know if I can do it’: Tales from the first tee at the Ryder Cup


SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — First-tee jitters are a thing. But at the Ryder Cup, they escalate to a level that makes for considerable discomfort among professional golfers. They have done this hundreds of times, stuck a tee in the ground to begin competition.

The Ryder Cup, though, is different.

Perhaps it is because of the team aspect. Certainly the fact that 18-hole match play is not the same as a 72-hole tournament is a factor.

And then there is the setting, far different from the typically genteel scene the players see week in, week out.

The grandstands surrounding the first tee at Whistling Straits on Friday will be filled to capacity, likely from before the sun even rises.

Those who have played in a Ryder Cup say that first tee shot is unlike anything they have ever faced. And that’s coming from major champions, accomplished pros.

Ryder Cup participants, Americans and Europeans, past and present, tell their tales from the first time on the first tee.

First Ryder Cup: 2018 at Le Golf National, Paris
How it went: With partner Jordan Spieth, Thomas won his first match 1 up over Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton. He went 4-1 overall, and defeated Rory McIlroy in singles.

“It was, hands down, the most nervous I’ve ever been. It doesn’t even compare to as nervous as I was during the PGA [Championship, which he won in 2017] or as nervous as I’ve been winning golf tournaments. It is just a total out-of-body experience. The best way to explain it to people … I hit a 5-wood off the first tee and I don’t put it on a tee when I do that. I just kind of put it on the deck. I kind of dig a little thing in the ground with my club and I’ll set it up on that.

“I’ve always said if I had to put it on a tee, I don’t think I could have. I would have been too nervous, to where I would not have been able to get a ball on the tee.

“That’s when I was very, very glad to have Jordan [Spieth] as my partner and someone to calm me down. The pressure, it’s a privilege, you want to be able to feel that. If you didn’t feel that, I mean, then there would be no reason for me or any of us to be playing.

“That’s why I turned pro, that’s why I’ve gotten here is to be playing in a Ryder Cup and to have those experiences. If you’re never getting that moment, you never learn. But that was pretty nuts.”

First Ryder Cup: 2018 at Le Golf National, Paris
How it went: With Paul Casey, Hatton lost 1 up to Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. He went 1-2 overall, with a singles loss to Patrick Reed.

“I was pretty nervous on the range, to be honest. We talked about that in the team room early in the week. The experienced guys talked about their own experiences. The main thing was it’s OK to be nervous. Everyone is going to be feeling that way. I had a really good warm-up, which really helped. I had my dad there, who is my coach. I was putting it in the positions that we want to see in the backswing. Rhythm was good. That actually calmed me down. Having a really good range session. I was able to enjoy the first tee a lot more.

“The experience of walking down … the atmosphere, it was pretty special. It’s so noisy. And then when you’re stepping into the ball, you could literally hear a pin drop. I think I was genuinely smiling over the ball. It was amazing. I hit a really nice tee shot, which was great. Felt amazing to see a good shot and walk off that tee.”

First Ryder Cup: 2014 at Gleneagles, Scotland
How it went: With partner Patrick Reed, Spieth defeated Ian Poulter and Stephen Gallacher 5 and 4. Spieth went 2-1-1 overall, with a singles loss to Graeme McDowell.

“I remember it was the most nerve-racking shot I ever hit. [Patrick Reed went first and skied his first tee shot.] I don’t know if that calmed me down. It might have helped. If that was the case I don’t really remember because I was so nervous I don’t know if I knew what anyone did on the first hole. I have a painting of that first tee shot, it’s one of the coolest things that I have because it was probably the most nerve-racking shot of my life.

“It was my first time ever in an away arena. Something about the 40 degrees, fog rising. The sun is just coming up there in Scotland, you hear the echoes from the crowd and all the chants. And you’re like, ‘What am I about to walk into?'”

First Ryder Cup: 1999 at The Country Club, Brookline, Massachusetts
How it went: With partner Jesper Parnevik, Garcia defeated Tiger Woods and Tom Lehman 2 and 1. Garcia went 3-1-1 for the week, with a singles loss to Jim Furyk.

“I didn’t hit first. It was foursomes and I played with Jesper [Parnevik] and he hit first, which obviously helped. But I can tell you from three years ago in France, even though it was a 3-iron … with the water on the left and high rough on the right, it’s nerve-racking. Very nervy, no doubt. You want to start well. It’s already nervy just because it’s the Ryder Cup. You want to hit a good tee shot. And if you’re playing foursomes you want to put your partner in a good spot.

“Even if you play one or play none or play 15 Ryder Cups, you still get nervous on the first tee. It’s just the beauty of it. As simple as that.”

First Ryder Cup: 2004 at Oakland Hills, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
How it went: With partner Darren Clarke, Poulter lost to Tiger Woods and Chris Riley 4 and 3 in Saturday four-ball. He went 1-1 overall, with a singles win over Riley.

“I didn’t play Friday. [Captain] Bernhard [Langer] always had the plan to keep myself and David Howell from that Friday. I was on the tee to observe for probably three of the four matches. And what was comforting more than anything else was to watch everyone else struggle to put the ball on the tee peg.

“When you can kind of feel that tension, and kind of hear the buzz or adrenaline or whatever you want to call it, and you can physically see that happening with everyone else. Phil [Mickelson] and Tiger [Woods] — neither of them hit a fairway. It’s a daunting position to be in. We’ve all said it through the years. There’s no bigger pressure tee shot than the first one at the Ryder Cup.

“Why? Just everything that goes around the Ryder Cup. The buildup. The buzz. The want to make the team. The realization of who you are playing for. All of that kind of comes to a head. You’ve got to pony up and hit one down the middle.

“When it came to Saturday morning, it was still daunting, but I knew what to expect.”

First Ryder Cup: 2014 at Gleneagles, Scotland
How it went: With partner Jordan Spieth, Reed defeated Ian Poulter and Stephen Gallacher 5 and 4. Reed was the best American player for the week, going 3-0-1 with a singles victory over Henrik Stenson.

“It’s brutal, just brutal. I popped mine up. I had 3-wood and I hit hybrid or a 3-iron to the green. I made par. Everyone else had wedges and I had 3-iron. That calmed me down, going ahead making par on that hole. You’re like, ‘Wow, really. I just did that?’ Trying not to look and see if you made a sky mark on the 3-wood. Once I didn’t, I hit a quality iron shot there, off the races. That’s the biggest thing. You have the guys there behind you, trying to pick you up, trying to calm you down. Once you get out there and start going, you start getting into just golf and what you’re used to.

“The more you can take the situation out of it and what it is actually is … it’s still just a 3-wood off the tee. Start thinking about that situation and that’s when the nerves kick in. You have to just get in your own space.”

First Ryder Cup: 1997 at Valderrama, Spain
How it went: Westwood and Nick Faldo lost to Fred Couples and Brad Faxon 1 up in four-ball. Westwood went 3-2, with a singles victory over Jeff Maggert.

“I had Nick Faldo as a partner. That made it a little bit easier. We were playing Fax and Freddie. I genuinely think we were all nervous. I watched Freddie’s and Fax’s hands teeing the ball up. And they were shaking as well, so that made me feel more comfortable. I just think it gets built up. You’re representing your country, your continent. The Ryder Cup is a big deal. When it comes around, you don’t want to let anybody down. Just getting that first tee shot out of the way is always nice.”

First Ryder Cup: 2004 at Oakland Hills, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
How it went: With partner Davis Howell, Casey defeated Jim Furyk and Chad Campbell 2 and 1 in Saturday four-ball. Casey went 1-1 for the week, losing in singles to Tiger Woods.

“He put us on the first tee on Friday to make sure we could take in the atmosphere even though we didn’t play. You look at it now — we were all s—-ing ourselves. But it was nothing like the grandstands we have now. It was a small grandstand. And we were still bricking ourselves. There’s been a few times in my life I’ve worried about making contact with the golf ball and looking like a fool. And that was one of them. Langer was very good: ‘Boys, you’re here for a reason. Breathe and smack it down the middle.’ He was good like that. You have to breathe and not s— yourself. And I thinned it down the middle.”

First Ryder Cup: 2010 at Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales
How it went: With partner Phil Mickelson, Johnson lost to Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer 3 and 2. He went 2-1 overall, with a singles victory over Kaymer.

“I was nervous for sure. I think all week, I had hit a 3-wood off the first tee, but it was early in the morning and I was definitely feeling it standing on the first tee. Playing with Phil, I think we were the first group out. I was hitting the first tee shot and then there was no way I was hitting the 3-wood. I was hitting the driver, the biggest club in the bag, just because if it was anything else I might not have hit the ball. I don’t think I hit it very good, but I made contact with it. Definitely settled down a bit after the first tee shot. Especially over there. You get on the first hole, they’re singing songs and it’s a really neat experience. But it was my first Ryder Cup and I was definitely feeling it.”

First Ryder Cup: 2018 at Le Golf National, Paris
How it went: With Francesco Molinari, Fleetwood defeated Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed 3 and 1 in a very successful partnership that saw the duo go 4-0. Fleetwood went 4-1 overall, with a singles loss to Tony Finau.

“I actually had a nice first-tee Ryder Cup experience. You hear horror stories, don’t you? I felt all right. I was nervous. We were the last group out and you hear all the roars going through and you see everybody’s tee shot before yours. But when I actually got there, I felt all right. I actually felt pretty good.”

First Ryder Cup: 2008 at Valhalla Golf Club, Louisville, Kentucky
How it went: With partner Ian Poulter, Rose defeated Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell 1 up. He went 3-1 overall, with a singles victory over Phil Mickelson.

“Faldo was the captain. He kind of paid a lot of respects to the first tee shot. He took us all down there as a team on Thursday to try and imagine it and visualize it. Nick has always been, in his own game, into visualization. I think he thought that would be a helpful exercise. I think it was helpful, but it also elevates the anticipation of it. There’s nothing like the first tee shot at the Ryder Cup on Friday morning.

“I think there’s been a big difference between playing Friday morning or playing Friday afternoon. The crowds mellow quite a bit. That anticipation that first morning is unbelievable. You get there and it’s a really early start to the Ryder Cup. The first tee time is, say, 7:30 a.m., but you arrive at the course at 5:45 to start your breakfast, warm up. Already the stands are packed. You’re already starting to hear the chanting going on. All through your warm-up, you’re hearing the first tee. It’s like calling your name. The buildup toward it is something you can’t really prepare for. You have to suck in a couple of deep breaths more than you normally would. Commit and hope for the best.

First Ryder Cup: 1995 at Oak Hill Country Club, Rochester, New York
How it went: With partner Corey Pavin, Mickelson defeated Bernhard Langer and Per-Ulrik Johansson 6 and 4 in afternoon four-ball. He went 3-0 overall, with a 2-and-1 singles victory over Johansson.

“I remember it. I played with Corey Pavin. I was very nervous. [It was] best ball. It was nice to have two shots and have a partner back you up. I liked playing that one first instead of alternate shot where you’ve got nobody to cover you if you hit a bad shot. And Corey made a 60-footer on the first hole for birdie. The roar and the energy and the adrenaline that came rushing through my body when he made that putt was as exciting as can be. And then it kind of settled in. Then you calm down from that. We were fine and ended up playing well and won our match. I enjoyed having a partner like Corey who had been there before.

“I’ve always felt more pressure in the Ryder Cup than anywhere ever I’ve played. Most guys will play in a Ryder Cup before they win a major. It’s not the case for everybody. Dealing with that kind of pressure makes dealing with the major kind of pressure a little bit easier. Plus, you have teammates helping you through it, so you learn a lot.”

First Ryder Cup: 2010 at Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales
How it went: With partner Graeme McDowell, McIlroy tied against Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar in morning four-ball. He went 1-1-2 with a half in singles against Cink.

“Once you put the tee in the ground and the ball is on there, it’s a lot easier. Thankfully, it was an easy-enough tee shot [and] it wasn’t like the first tee shot in Paris. Water on the left, crap on the right. It was a driver swing as hard as you can and let it go. It was pretty good.”

First Ryder Cup: 2012 at Medinah Country Club, Medinah, Illinois
How it went: With Phil Mickelson, Bradley defeated Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia 4 and 3 in foursomes. He went 3-1 overall, with a singles loss to Rory McIlroy.

“The word that comes to mind is scared. I was thinking to myself when I was putting to get ready to play, ‘What have I done? I’m in over my head here.’ I didn’t really put it together. It was going to that first tee. And I was petrified. I’ve never been really scared playing golf before. And I was scared that day. I hit one of the best shots of my life down the first. I’m proud of that. It’s still incredible to think about now. When in that team room, everything gets a little bit more serious on that Thursday night. MJ [Michael Jordan] came in and gave us a speech. It gets real quick. It’s just a really heavy, heavy moment. I remember driving to the course just kind of in awe of the whole situation. It’s just a big thing for us.”

First Ryder Cup: 2002 at The Belfry, Sutton Coldfield, England
How it went: With Jim Furyk, Cink defeated Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley 3 and 2 in afternoon foursomes.

“I was talking to Brooks Koepka the other day about this. I was playing with Furyk in alternate shot and I sat out in the morning. Furyk and I knew we were going to play together. We had scouted the course and decided I would [tee off] the odd holes. I was on the putting green and I could hear all the stuff going on at the first tee and I said, ‘I need you to hit the first tee shot. I don’t know if I can do it.’ I took the even holes. He hit it off the first tee and he hit it in the most perfect place for a rookie playing in his first Ryder Cup to hit it from.

“It was in the first cut and teed up almost. About 165 yards and an 8-iron. It was a dream. I hit it on the green and maybe now I can ramp the stress down. It was about a 20-footer and Furyk runs it about 4 feet past. And I made it. That was my first hole and it settled me down pretty good. And we won the match.”

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