Storied tension of Ryder Cup first tee noticeably absent
Creeping hand of PR wrapped its bony fingers around the Friday morning institution
Tony Finau of the United States hits the opening shot of the morning fourball matches of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Getty Images
You hear the first tee long before you see it. Walking through the metal detectors down at the side entrance to Le Golf National, the low thump of the bass is banging away in the darkness. The far-off voice of a French DJ echoes through the compounds, giving it socks like it’s the last night of his life. It’s not. It’s 6.17am at a golf tournament in a well-do-to suburb south-west of Paris. You only get this at the Ryder Cup.
And don’t they know it. All week long here, the first thing on anyone’s list once they’ve arrived inside the grounds has been to come and gawk up at the grandstand behind the first tee and coo at what it might be like on Friday morning. Now that it has finally arrived, they are, to put a fine point on it, tearing the arse out of it.
It becomes apparent very quickly that the first tee has eaten itself. It’s just under two hours until the first tee shots are going to be hit and already DJ Overkill is exhorting the crowd to give him some energy. “U-S-What?” he screeches. “I said, U-S-What? Come on, guys - U-S-What?” Listen dude, it’s half-six in the morning. U-S-Where’s my breakfast roll and coffee, that’s what.
The crowds are gathering themselves. As the sun comes up and the caffeine kicks in and the cold of the night begins to wear off, the anticipation rises. The Friday morning first tee has become such an institution that you can feel everybody straining to feel it. Which is probably part of the problem.
This is what happens in sport. Something genuinely great and natural and organically fun gets taken over by the Fun Nazis. The creeping hand of PR wraps its bony fingers around the experience and what used to be an enjoyably knockabout half-hour of slagging and singing becomes a two-hour slog of nightclub bangers booming from a thousand speakers hung all around. All the while, the poor mook shouting into his mike is doing his best to create an atmosphere that would happily create itself if he’d only shut his yap for 20 seconds.
Around 7.40, Ian Poulter emerges from the gloom to walk onto the first tee. Poulter isn’t playing this morning so his role is basically Thunder-Clapper-In-Chief. He stands in the middle of the tee and dutifully makes the Y with his arms and all around the crowd join in. He finishes it off with his trademark double fist to the heart. The crowd do it back to him and everyone falls around laughing at the ludicrousness of it all. See? How hard was that?
Still, by the time 8.00 came around, you got the sense the whole place was a little drained by it all. A few abortive attempts to get a wave going fell flat and it was only when the players started to arrive on tee that it felt like Ryder Cups past. Imagine.
Golf time. The tee shot off the first tee is not overly difficult in the general scheme of things. A long iron or a short wood off the tee into a fat enough fairway. There’s water on the left and rough on the right but you have no business being in either of them if you’re a pro golfer. Unless, that is, you’re a pro golfer on the first tee of a Ryder Cup.
Especially, it turns out, if you’re hitting the first shot. Tony Finau was the last man in, the final pick on Jim Furyk’s team, a rookie who has had the shortest time of anyone to get his head around playing here. Of all the players on either side to be chosen to get the matches underway, he seemed a curious one.
All the more so when his tee shot boomed down the left-hand side, heading for the water, ultimately pulling up just three or four rolls short. Up next, Brooks Koepka, aka the least impressed man on earth. He striped his iron down the left middle as if the whole thing was a bit of a nonsense anyway. Likewise, Justin Rose and Jon Rahm, who nailed a couple of perfect arcs and got about their business.
And that was generally the way of it for the next half-hour. Maybe it was the relative ease of the shot that faced the players or maybe it was just the mental exhaustion of the overblown build-up. One way or the other, the storied tension of the Friday first tee was noticeably absent.
Of the 16 players who teed off in the four fourball matches, 11 hit the fairway. Of the five that didn’t, three were able to hit their approach to within 15 feet out of the rough. The only two who got in any real trouble off the tee were Finau, who had to chip out sideways, and Thorbjorn Olesen who actually did find that water on the left after he overcooked his tee shot out of pure adrenaline.
By the time the last match came through, it was all very straight-forward. Patrick Reed and Tiger Woods sailed serenely down the fairway, Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari followed them. The stands were emptying and the Ryder Cup was underway. The only thing that actually matters was finally actually mattering.