Nearly 50,000 mostly star-spangled spectators descended on Kohler on Friday morning, the quiet Wisconsin hamlet of 2,100 souls along the Sheboygan river that has become the focal point of the sporting world as the United States attempts to regain the Ryder Cup on home soil.
The masses arrived as early as 3.30am, an hour and a half before the gates opened, nearly all of them angling for a coveted spot on the horseshoe-shaped grandstand encircling the first tee. The cascading strains of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline and staccato chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” that would resound throughout the Straits Course all morning long briefly came to a hush when Sergio García led off the opening foursomes match. On a chilly morning, his tee shot landed against the edge of a bunker left of the fairway to kick off the latest in a string of 2020-branded sporting events to be staged in 2021.
The typical home-crowd support was further magnified in the Americans' favour due to Covid-19 travel restrictions on European-based spectators. Flag-waving jingoism will always be a part of team competitions like the Ryder Cup where the bar of etiquette has traditionally been relaxed, and there was no shortage of lusty boos reserved for Team Europe. But the well-documented fears of well-lubricated attention-seekers blurting "mashed potatoes" and "Baba Booey" during players' backswings proved thankfully overblown.
"You only have to look around and all the grandstands are red," Ian Poulter said this week. "As much as we feel comfortable as a team . . . we have to play extra special this week to get the job done."
Full to capacity
The 7,224-yard track was constructed late enough in the storied six-decade career of course architect Pete Dye to account for the modern needs of professional tournaments – from sufficient gallery positions to areas for corporate tents – and parts looked full to capacity with ticket-holders enjoying the morning rounds.
Organisers couldn’t have dreamed of fairer conditions as the early chill gave way to a sun-splashed morning as the players enjoyed conditions more benign than during Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practice rounds. The red-white-and-blue-clad hordes made for a rollicking atmosphere that wouldn’t have felt out of place at Lambeau Field, the storied home ground of the Green Bay Packers less than an hour’s drive northbound on Interstate 43.
Europe was first on the board when Jon Rahm and García completed a 3&1 win over Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas on the 17th hole, prompting melodic strains of "Olé, Olé, Olé" from the small but plucky European contingent of spectators, a mix of expats and savvy travellers who managed to get into the country. One fan from England, profiled on Sky Sports, spent the requisite two weeks in Mexico before entering the US and will ultimately be away for 28 days before he can return home.
García, after sealing his 23rd career Ryder Cup victory to match Nick Faldo’s all-time record, pumped his fist and congratulated his partner before blowing a kiss to the booing gallery.
Less than 10 minutes later, even louder chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" followed when Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa won 3&2 over Viktor Hovland and Paul Casey to move the Americans level. More of the same followed when Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay continued the US rookie run and finished off Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy to nose Steve Stricker's team ahead. When Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger won 2&1 over Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick, the hosts' flying start was complete.
The early lead, while of no grave concern to a European team that hasn’t led after the opening session in 15 years, created a bustling energy across the grounds as the spectators attended to business ahead of the afternoon fourballs. Europe still managed to win the Solheim Cup under similar circumstances, but an uphill battle awaits.
“I guess everything is stacked against us,” Poulter said. “When you have that, when you can go in as underdogs, when you can turn the tide and actually come out victorious, it means a little bit more.”
The crackling atmosphere was only expected to redouble as Bryson DeChambeau made his much-anticipated 2021 debut alongside Scottie Scheffler. The two took on Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton. Johnson was paired with Schauffele against Paul Casey and Bernd Wiesberger, while Tony Finau and Harris English took on McIlroy and Shane Lowry. The last match of the day was to feature Thomas and Cantlay against Tommy Fleetwood and Hovland.
“It’s going to be fun,” DeChambeau said this week. “Every team event I’ve played in, it’s been out of the [United] States. Being here for the first time, I guess you could say is an exciting opportunity. It’s going to be fun to see what we can do to rile up the crowd in the right way and get them behind our backs and moving us in the direction we all want to be in.
“All I’m going to do is my absolute best to show people who I truly am, and whatever people think about me is not important. It’s about the team this week. It’s about riling us all up and getting that Ryder Cup back here on US home soil.”