LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As pink and purple clouds began to take shape, and the sun crept above the horizon, Padraig Harrington was already busy on the driving range at Valhalla this morning. In one hour, he would hit the opening shot of the Ryder Cup.
Amateur golfers feel first-tee jitters all the time, but for the professionals, there can't be a more anxious moment than teeing off in the Ryder Cup.
With gas generators humming and portable lights glowing, Harrington hit one wedge shot after another with a glove tucked under his right arm. He does the same thing every week and before every round; it's a drill that helps him keep his swing compact and close to his body. In a pressure-filled week when everyone is taken out of his normal routine, warming up on the range can be one of the few things that feels familiar and reassuring for players.
Justin Leonard was the first American to arrive on the range. Using a sand wedge, he started hitting half-swing shots, then three-quarter-swing shots, and finally full-swing shots. He was not aiming at a specific flag; rather, he was warming up his body and gauging how the balls were flying through the moist Kentucky air.
At 7:45, Phil Mickelson (above right, with Anthony Kim) walked onto the range to a chorus on "Go Phil!" Anthony Kim appeared a moment later and started loosening up between Mickelson and Leonard. Both Mickelson and Kim followed the same routine as Harrington and Leonard. Wedges first, then short irons and finally long irons and woods.
As Harrington pounded one driver after another with a slight draw, the shot he'd want to hit on the first hole, the tension in the air was broken. The first "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chant began, followed quickly by, "Eu-rope! Eu-rope!" Then, when a few fans started to chant, "Soccer sucks! Soccer sucks!" both the American and European players burst into laughter.
Harrington and Mickelson each bombed their drives into the right portion of the first fairway. Their warm-up routines had worked, and for the fans who were around the practice area this morning, the lesson was clear: When it matters most, retreat into your routine. (Photo: Robert Beck/SI)