CHASKA, Minn. – One of the first lessons you learn in journalism school is that a real golf writer keeps his or her personal feelings strictly personal. That means you can be secretly happy when a favorite golfer wins (which I am when Jordan Spieth, Nick Price or Ben Crenshaw ever does) or even glad when a less favorite loses, but the true professionals always keeps their feeling to themselves.
No cheering in the press box, as the saying goes.
But all of that went out the window on a sunny, even warm, fall Sunday afternoon when I stood decidedly outside the ropes at Hazeltine Golf Club to watch the Americans (or “we,” as I should say) kick the ever-loving keister off those European blokes to win on the final day of the 2016 Ryder Cup matches.
Whoa, wait, that wasn’t very professional, was it? What I mean is, I watched two great teams engaged in a fine fall afternoon of excellent skill and sportsmanship for the hallowed biennial trophy of sports and honor between our splendid two shores. Sorry, old habits are hard to break.
After more than 20 years of golf writing, I have been fortunate to cover some of the greatest events in golf, including another American Ryder Cup win (did I mention I’m a personal 2-0?) along with multiple Masters tournaments, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and standing on the first tee of the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa with Byron Nelson watching and Tiger Woods playing.
But I have never, ever, felt the electricity and super-charged sports excitement like I felt that last day at Hazeltine. As I sat there for two hours next to the first tee during the Sunday singles matches at this year’s Ryder Cup, my blood felt like it was pumping red, white and blue. The grandstands had been packed for hours, divided between the American-led group of hearty fans dressed in U.S. hockey jerseys, and an equally loud band of European fans in matching blue and gold trousers and beanies.
For hours, they chanted on the first tee, with the American cheers ranging from spine tingling “Arnold-Palmer, Arnold-Palmer!” to the inspirational “I Believe! I believe we will win this match” to the appreciative “We got Jordan. We got Jordan.” When His Airiness arrived (just before Bill Murray), the pro-American crowd went absolutely ballistic, and they even started chanting, “We got Ellie, We got Ellie,” for Jordan Spieth’s special needs sister before Spieth’s opening tee shot.
Throw in the crowd-led “Star Spangled Banner” where nobody knelt or thrust their clinched fist in the air, and I was ready to put my fist or head through a wall for the U-S-of-A before we even headed down the first fairway.
While all sports are like this, it especially applies to the Ryder Cup, as it’s much easier to see the action on TV than in person. An all-time record of 65,000 fans was on hand for the final day, making up-close viewing almost impossible. With only 12 matches going on at the same time, and many ending before they ever got to the final hole, the crowds were massive on almost every hole.
With the grandstands packed early in the morning before we even arrived, we decided to follow our favorite matches from hole to hole, on foot, feeding off the crowd vibe rather than the shot by shot action.
The Texas twosome of Patrick Reed vs. Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth vs. Sweden’s Henrik Stenson were off in the first two groups, which made it impossible not to watch. Phil Mickelson vs. Spain’s (and Byron Nelson Champion) Sergio Garcia were paired in Match No. 5, so even early in the round, it was game on for the Ryder Cup.
Other than the electric atmosphere and very interesting American and European themed costumes, we were treated to some outstanding golf. Of course, seeing as I was outside the ropes, freed from my media maturity (and responsibility), I wouldn’t have minded some U.S. match play blowouts, but this was some of the finest final day golf action I’ve ever seen in person.
Big shot after big shot and pure putt after pure putt from both sides made it a golfing day to remember. For the first four or five hours, it felt like every single match was a heavyweight slug fest, with both sides swollen and bruised, barely able to stand, but refusing to give even an inch. At one point during the Reed/McIlroy match, it sounded like the fans were going to riot right there in the middle of the golf course. And honestly, I think Reed and McIlroy would have even fed off that.
After Phil poured in his 10th birdie (his 10th!!) in his match with Sergio, my friend mentioned the match was so great it would be a shame if Sergio missed his 10th birdie putt on 18. I almost agreed, but then remembered whose side I was on. Sergio didn’t miss, but minutes later the cup was ours when Ryan Moore, who started out his career not wearing any logos, won it for the biggest logo of them all.
It was the first Ryder Cup in a long time that we as Americans could develop some actual hate for the Europeans. Not that spoiled, jealous hate that comes from getting your teeth knocked out every two years, but that type of hate that comes from watching an intense rivalry born right before your eyes. The type of fan hatred that boils up when Old Glory is crushing her opponents.
That’s ‘Merica. USA! USA! Got to love it. Especially when you can channel your inner fan on golf’s rowdiest stage. The refined and genteel, dignified Masters is only months away, and hopefully I’ll be there with my respectable journalist hat on and my fingers hovering over the keys. For now, however, I’m happy to revel in and remember golf’s greatest rock show for years come.
EDITOR’S TAKE – Is The Worm Really Turning?
By Travis Measley
It’s been a long time since Team USA fans felt this good about a win at the Ryder Cup. Even 1999, as amazing as it was, felt a bit like a fluke, and there were more signs that year pointing to the oncoming European dominance than there were of a continued American winning streak. The win in 2008 felt the same way – it was lucky, not a sign of an actual turnaround.
This year, however, feels different, and it has more to do with the outlook of the team moving forward than it does the win itself (although that Reed/McIlroy match was FREAKING AWESOME). Look at the American roster – Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka are all 26 or younger, and Dustin Johnson feels like an elder statesman, but he is only 32. Phil Mickelson is probably on his way out (he is 46, after all), but there is a stable of experienced guys in their mid- and late-30s (Jimmy Walker, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, Zach Johnson, etc.) that can serve as great veterans for years to come.
But, more importantly, look at the young talent that just missed out on the 2016 team: Justin Thomas, Kevin Chappell, Daniel Berger, Harris English, Daniel Summerhays, Kevin Kisner, Billy Horschel, etc. Kisner and Summerhays are the oldest on that list at 32, the rest of the guys are 30 or younger. This may be the first time in 30 years that the American bench is as stacked with young talent as it is now.
On top of that, it seems that the Americans finally have a plan in place on how to pick captains and build teams. Do we know what that plan is? No. But from listening to Phil and Captain Davis Love III and Tiger Woods (and others) talk over the past 24 months, clearly the Americans are doing something different, and it’s something they believe in. And honestly, maybe that belief is more important than the plan itself.
And THAT is why the worm is finally turning back in favor of Team USA.