The first tee shot at the Ryder Cup brings a weight that makes grown men shake, quiver and sweat

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Much of Scotland woke up bitterly cold the first day of the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and forced players heading out for the morning session of Four-Balls to layer up, grab winter stocking caps and find oversized mittens.

The only sense of warmth on the Centenary Course some 60 miles north of Glasgow could be found on the first tee, where thousands of spectators had started arriving before the sun hit the sky, their revelry and chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” and “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé,” shattering the silence of the otherwise morning calm that had an eerie feel as fog slowly rolled over the massive property.

But on the practice ground where you could see your breath, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth were literally and figuratively sweating.

In a surprise move when the pairings were announced on Thursday, U.S. captain Tom Watson paired the rookies and sent them out in the third match. While the two are both tough cookies — Reed has been likened to a raging bull and two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw thought he was talking to Wyatt Earp the first time he met Spieth — this was a different animal they were about to confront.

USA’s Patrick Reed tees off alongside Tiger Woods amidst a sea of humanity at Le Golf National in Paris in 2018.
USA’s Patrick Reed tees off alongside Tiger Woods amidst a sea of humanity at Le Golf National in Paris in 2018.

Walking to the first tee, Reed and Spieth were able to gather themselves one last time as they walked through a 40-yard tunnel leading to the opening hole. When they emerged from the cover, however, both had trouble breathing as the suffocating nature of Ryder Cup pressure took hold.

Reed would hit first and Spieth second in their match against Europe’s Stephen Gallacher and Ian Poulter. After the customary pose for pictures, Reed was announced to hit the first shot and did his best to send the match onward.

“It felt like all the oxygen was sucked out of the area,” he said. “It was the hardest tee shot I’ve ever hit in my life even though it was just a 3-wood with a wide fairway. It was brutal.”

Reed sent his tee shot to the moon.

“I skied it and was hitting 3-iron to the green when the others were hitting pitching wedge,” Reed said. “There’s nothing like it. There is no situation in the game where you will have that much pressure on you. You’re playing for the captain, your teammates, for the flag, for your country, and it gets to you.

“After I hit my shot, Jordan was laughing. I said, ‘Bud, please hit a better one than I did.’ I think he was feeling the nerves, but when he saw me sky it, I think that settled him down. I mean he probably thought he couldn’t hit it any worse than I did. And after he stopped laughing, he hit a great tee shot.”

Spieth didn’t quite remember it that way.

“Maybe I was laughing, I don’t remember. But I do remember it was the most nerve-wracking shot I’ve ever hit, so his shot definitely didn’t calm me down,” Spieth said. “I was so nervous getting ready to hit my shot that I don’t remember what anybody else did on the first hole.

“It’s something you never forget. It was my first time in an away arena. And it was something like 40 degrees, fog rising, and you hear the echoes of the roars and all the chants, and the sun has just come up in Scotland.

“You’re thinking, what am I about to walk into?”

Spieth commissioned a large painting of that moment on the first tee and has it hanging in a prominent place in his home. It’s a reminder — not that he needs one, mind you — how hitting your first shot in a Ryder Cup and dealing with the pressure throughout the biennial clashes between the U.S. and Europe can be both special and onerous.

“That painting is one of the coolest things I have,” he said. “That moment, and really, every moment in the Ryder Cup, is something else and something you never, ever forget.”

No stage like it

All others who have played in the Ryder Cup echo Spieth’s words. The Ryder Cup is where the golf clap dies and booing isn’t exactly shunned. It’s where grown men quiver as the burden of playing for country and flag, for team and captain, can become overwhelming.

It is where hearts race, heads spin and hands shake. Where pride is the currency that fuels the players instead of cash, where expectation on your shoulders weighs two tons as both teams play to claim possession of a gold trophy that weighs just four pounds and stands all of 17 inches tall.

Especially the first tee shot.

“It’s scary,” Rickie Fowler said.

“It’s the most nerve-wracking moment of your golf career,” U.S. captain Steve Stricker said.

“It’s a daunting position to be in,” European stalwart Ian Poulter said. “I think every player has said it through the years that there is no bigger pressure tee shot in golf than the first one in the Ryder Cup. The buildup, the buzz, who you are playing for. All that kind of comes to a head and you have to pony up and hit one down the middle.”

There’s pressure and then there’s Ryder Cup pressure. Ryan Moore, for example, made his debut in 2016 for the U.S. and was shaking when he stepped into his first tee shot at Hazeltine National Golf Club. And it was Tuesday.

“Playing in the Ryder Cup, especially the first time, it’s like going to the dentist for a root canal and learning they just ran out of Novocaine,” said victorious 2008 U.S. captain Paul Azinger, who had memorable matches in singles action against Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Jose Maria Olazabal in his four appearances as a player. “Your ability to stay in the moment and control your emotions applies to this event more so than any other event in golf. Every hole is like playing the final round of a major when you are in contention.

“At the Ryder Cup, from the very first shot, there is nowhere to hide.”

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Justin Rose played in his first of five appearances in 2008 at Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky. He gathered some intel of the enormity of the opening tee shot when captain Nick Faldo gathered the team on Wednesday and led them to the first tee.

“He respected the first tee shot,” Rose said. “He talked about how the atmosphere was going to be like and gave us a sense of what to expect.

“We tried to visualize it, imagine it.”

Rose’s first moment came Friday morning when he went out with Ian Poulter in Foursomes, and despite Faldo’s wisdom, Rose was shocked to his core.

“We teed off early in the morning, like 7:40, so we were at the course at 5:45. And you could hear them chanting already, and the stands were packed,” Rose said. “There’s really nothing that can prepare you for it. It’s something where you just have to suck in a little bit of air and do your best.

“I hit the fairway and I said to myself that I could breathe again. And then Poulter stiffed a wedge and it was a beautiful start to the Ryder Cup. That was an important moment in my Ryder Cup career because when you absorb that first tee shot and hit it well, everything else gets easier. Well, a little easier.

“And over the years, you come to learn that there is nothing like the first morning of the Ryder Cup. That’s the session where the anticipation builds, and you have all the chanting and cheering. It’s like walking into the lion’s den. And it seems each Ryder Cup since has gotten bigger and they try to outdo the next so that first tee has become a thing. It’s like a living, growing kind of beast.”

Europe supporters cheer near the 1st tee as they wait for the start of the fourball matches on the opening day of the 42nd Ryder Cup at Le Golf National outside Paris in September of 2018.
Europe supporters cheer near the 1st tee as they wait for the start of the fourball matches on the opening day of the 42nd Ryder Cup at Le Golf National outside Paris in September of 2018.

And Paris takes the cake

Well, the largest monster the Ryder Cup has ever seen was at Le Golf National in Paris at the 2018 Ryder Cup. A grandstand that was home to 7,000 energetic fans loomed over the first tee and 18th green and rose into the sky so high that one could see, from the top row, the illuminated Eiffel Tower 15 miles away.

“Playing a practice round, there was basically no people in it, and I still got goosebumps looking at it,” Rory McIlroy said.

Tommy Fleetwood, playing in his first Ryder Cup, woke up quickly in the City of Lights that Friday morning as he went out with Francesco Molinari to face Tiger Woods and Reed.

“I was more nervous warming up,” Fleetwood said. “Francesco and I were the last group out and while we were warming up, we heard the other three groups walk to the first tee and you hear the buildup and it gets to you. And we can see on the big screens that some people have hit it down the middle and some have hit it into the water and you see all that and then it’s your turn.

“It wasn’t easy.”

But when Fleetwood walked some 150 yards with Molinari down to the belly of the beast, he felt a sense of calm come over him.

“I actually felt way better than I thought I would feel,” he said. “There are a few things that went in my favor. One, it was a 5-wood tee shot for me and I had the Nike blue 5-wood, which is my favorite club of all time.

“And I had played with Tiger and Patrick a bunch that year and I obviously played with Fran a bunch that year so that helped calm me down. I felt all right about the golf course. And for the year, I had a massive goal which was to get to the first tee of the Ryder Cup. So in my head, I sort of had already done it.”

He mustered up the courage and hit a solid tee shot.

The first shot gets to everybody

Justin Thomas also made his debut in Paris. He had felt pressure before, especially during his magical 2017 when he won the PGA Championship and the FedEx Cup and was a stalwart in the Presidents Cup. But then he had an out-of-body experience in Paris when he went to the first tee with Spieth.

“It was hands down the most nervous I’ve ever been,” Thomas said. “I was very, very glad to have Jordan as my partner and someone to calm me down and make as many birdies as he did because that’s why you want to be there. The pressure, it’s a privilege; you want to be able to feel that, and if you didn’t feel that, I mean, then there would be no reason for me or any of us to be playing.

“It was pretty nuts. The Ryder Cup is just as big as it gets.”

The first tee shot in a Ryder Cup gets to everybody, including the game’s best player of his generation.

In his debut at Valderrama in Spain in 1997, Tiger Woods, who had won the Masters that year in record-setting fashion, got into a little squabble with playing partner Mark O’Meara before their opening Friday Foursomes match.

“The way the golf course sets up, you should tee off on the (odd-numbered holes),” O’Meara said.

“Well, I kind of like the evens,” Woods responded.

“No, no, no. Odds are good for you,” O’Meara said. “Why do you want to hit off the evens?”

“Because you’d have to hit the first tee shot,” Woods said.

“I listened. He was the vet. I hit a 2-iron, trapped it down in the fairway, and phew, it was all good,” Woods recalled. “There’s nothing like the first tee shot.”

O’Meara came to know that in 1985 in his debut when he and Curtis Strange went out first on Friday against Seve Ballesteros and Manuel Pinero at The Belfry in England. Strange had made his rookie start in 1983.

“Mark hits the first tee shot into the tented village. And it was in bounds. And I hit the second shot out of a guy’s cup of soup, damn near, and I wondered where that shot from O’Meara came from,” Strange said. “And he told me, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’ And I told him, ‘Are you kidding me? You better start breathing because you got me as a partner.’

“Crazy stuff like that happens, and it does affect people differently, but I handled it pretty well. I was nervous, don’t get me wrong, but I was never out-of-control nervous. But until you go through it, you have absolutely no idea how you’ll handle it.”

McIlroy, who has faced down pressure en route to winning four majors, knows that all too well. He made his Ryder Cup debut in 2010 in Wales.

“There’s nothing like walking onto that first tee for the first time and feeling that rush and just soaking in the atmosphere,” he said. “That’s what I’ve tried to sort of reiterate to the rookies. It’s like, you think you know what it’s like and you think you’ve played under pressure, but you haven’t.

“You haven’t played under what this is going to be like.”

A few years later McIlroy said, “I was really uncomfortable in 2010, I was just uncomfortable in 2012, and I was somewhat comfortable in 2014. It’s a tournament where you get feelings that you’ve never had before.”

Four-time major winner Brooks Koepka discovered that in 2016 at Hazeltine National Golf Club. Koepka is someone you don’t want to run into in a dark alley, unless that’s where the first tee of the Ryder Cup is.

“I’ve explained it about 20 times and it still gives me chills,” he said. “It was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been. Whatever tee height the ball was at, that’s where it was going to stay. The atmosphere was pretty wild, and you didn’t know what to expect. It was a lot of fun and it was pretty cool.

“You don’t get that in golf, you know what I mean? It felt like a real sporting event. There was no way I was going to re-tee because I’m not sure I could have. I was shaking; my legs didn’t feel right. All I knew is I was going to hit it far and wherever it was going to go it was going to go a long way.”

Zach Johnson, who held off Tiger Woods to win the 2007 Masters and won the 2015 British Open at St. Andrews in a playoff, made his debut in 2006 at the K Club and also wore the colors of the U.S. in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 and is one of captain Stricker’s vice-captains this year.

In 2006, U.S. captain Tom Lehman told Johnson he and Chad Campbell would go out in the afternoon on Friday, so he was advised to sleep in, get loose at his own pace and basically go through his normal routine.

So he did. Trouble was, his wife, Kim, woke up before dawn.

“My wife decided to go to the first tee Friday morning and check it out. She came back that morning and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so loud, it’s a joke,’ ” Johnson said. “ ‘Geez, honey, thanks a lot, that’s great to know.’ ”

But then Kim teed up some wise words.

“She said she heard all the chants and then watched everyone hit their shots and she said it was still just golf,” Johnson said. “That was so good to hear. But I was still numb when I teed it up, I was numb when I took the club back, but somehow the ball found the clubface and off we went.

“It was intense. It’s a surreal moment. You’ve heard the stories and you still have no idea what happens until it happens.”

Team USA vice-captain Tom Lehman, Brandt Snedeker and  Zach Johnson spray champagne as Team USA captain Davis Love III celebrates winning with the Ryder Cup.
Team USA vice-captain Tom Lehman, Brandt Snedeker and Zach Johnson spray champagne as Team USA captain Davis Love III celebrates winning with the Ryder Cup.

Learning curve coming

This year, Olympic gold medalist Xander Schauffele, two-time major champion Collin Morikawa and BMW Championship winner Patrick Cantlay are locks to make their debuts in the Ryder Cup for the U.S. For Europe, Viktor Hovland has secured his rookie start.

The three will be confronted by a setting at the first tee at Whistling Straits that includes a grandstand that needed 75 days to build and will seat some 2,000 spectators. Another 2,000 to 3,000 could surround the first tee.

Schauffele, who sank a 4-footer for par on the 72nd hole to win the gold medal in Tokyo, hasn’t thought about his first Ryder Cup tee shot. He got somewhat of a taste for it, however, when he played for the red, white and blue for the first time in the Presidents Cup in 2019 in Australia.

“There were massive stands, the people right on top of you. And the Aussie fans had a funny chant that was almost relaxing,” Schauffele said. “ 'Killing me Schauffele with his song, killing me Schauffele.'

“I’m looking forward to the challenge more than the fear of it. I’ve heard the stories. But I’m going to feel comfortable with any one of my partners out there. If I’m nervous and my partner’s showing calm, or if my partner is nervous and I’m showing calm, we’ll feed off each other in a good way.

“That’s what team sports is all about.”

Morikawa isn’t fretting his first tee shot that much, either. For now.

“I’m sure some guys will tell me about it, and they’ll tell me how nervous they were," he said. "To be honest, thinking back at the other team experience, the Walker Cup as an amateur, I specifically remember that tee shot because I hit the first tee shot for the U.S. team and I was really just hoping to make contact.

"I really look forward to that. I think if I embrace it more, I’ll actually be able to enjoy it rather than worrying about what’s going to happen.”

Hovland, again, for now, is of the same mind.

“I have not thought about it,” Hovland said. “I have thought about playing in the Ryder Cup and I’m looking forward to that. I’ve heard some of the stories about what happened to guys when they hit their first tee shot, but the way I think of it, I think of what coach Bratton (Alan, Oklahoma State) told us; it’s the same feeling you get, anxiety, nervousness, whether you were 11 years old playing a junior tournament and you have a putt to win. It’s the same nerves that you feel, the first tee shot at the Masters, the putt to win the Puerto Rico Open (he made it in 2020).

“Just because it’s the Ryder Cup it shouldn’t change that much. For sure I will ask the guys plenty of questions. And if they have advice, I’d listen, for sure, because I like to learn. But at the end of the day, it’s a golf shot.”

But unlike any other golf shot. This will be true for all shots in the Ryder Cup.

So, Johnson said he will tee up some nuggets of advice if asked.

“You want to be brutally honest, so I won’t shy away from telling them what the Ryder Cup is all about and what it does to your mind and body,” Johnson said. “And I’ll tell them it’s still just golf. There are 18 holes out there, you have your clubs, you have to hit shots, you have to putt. Once you get off that first tee, you will find your own rhythm. Once you find that, and it will take some time, you’ll be fine. And you made this team for a reason. You’re worthy of being on this team. Take that, rest on that, embrace that. And then deal with it.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ryder Cup 2021: Golfers recall struggles with nerves on first tee shot