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Glamour, glitz ... and leather: my first Ryder Cup Gala

Ryder Cup Gala
Andrew Redington/Getty Images
From left to right: Amy and Phil Mickelson; Kim and Zach Johnson; Amanda and Jason Dufner.

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The Ryder Cup is one of golf’s most grueling weeks, and not just because of the intensity of the competition. For the players it is an endless series of dinners, ceremonies, team meetings and other mandatory gatherings that force them out of their normal tournament-week routine. The traditional Wednesday night Gala is a long-standing nuisance, a faux-glitzy cash-grab by the host organizations for which the players don’t try to disguise their contempt.

A Ryder Cup veteran once kvetched to me, “We’re on display like pieces of meat.” Prime-cut, too; tickets to this year’s Gala were going for in excess of $500. In 1993 the Gala actually became part of the week’s narrative. European stalwart Sam Torrance asked members of the U.S. Ryder Cup team to sign his menu, and American captain Tom Watson interceded, saying he didn’t want to touch off an autograph frenzy. Torrance was indignant, and when the story got out it led to one of the greatest golf-related tabloid headlines of all-time: FORK OFF!

I had heard a lot about the Gala through the years but never bothered to attend, so I thought this would be a good year to investigate its sheer awfulness. I expected the scene at the Koo Theatre, in suburban Rosemont, to be very golfy. Think R & A ties and blue blazers with spray-on dandruff. In fact, the lobby turned into a rip-roaring cocktail party, patrolled by cougars in stripper-heels and dudes with a lot of “product” in their hair, many of them double-fisting $12 drinks.

Dinner is no longer part of the program. This year the show began at 8:30, with Chicago sports legends Scottie Pippen and Ernie Banks offering an introduction. This segued into a musical number performed by Blues Brothers impersonators. It was tacky, but frankly I was hoping for worse. Up next was Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. He offered a mini-stump speech that on Twitter someone called “drier than press room turkey.” Actually, that someone was me. Justin Timberlake, in his guise as “ambassador” to this Ryder Cup, then commanded the stage. He didn’t sing or dance but rather launched into a long, scripted monologue about the Ryder Cup and his love of golf. This was a little like going to a golf tournament and having Tiger Woods offer a cooking demonstration. Timberlake’s passion is admirable, and I liked his line calling his beard “half bluegrass, half poa annua,” but his bit couldn’t end soon enough. At this point the Gala was a tad cheesey but had not yet risen to odious.

Next up was a bit by the Second City comedy troupe and then a George Lopez monologue but I missed them both, having stepped outside to where a red carpet was awaiting the arrival of the U.S. and Europe team buses. A good number of fans had gathered to cheer. The Euros disembarked first, and each player and his companion was announced over a P.A. The girlfriends were discreetly called “special guests.”  As he posed for the cameras, I heard Graeme McDowell whisper to his date, “We’ll see how special.”

The American vice captains came off ahead of their players and were so giggly I asked Mike Hulbert if they had been drinking on the bus. “Maybe,” he said.

It was amusing to see the players in tuxedos. Bubba Watson seemed particularly itchy. “I look good, but I don’t like it,” he said. Without hats it was possible to take inventory of the hairstyles, or, in Jim Furyk’s case, lack thereof. The best look was definitely Dustin Johnson’s faux-hawk, if you don’t count the perpetual bedhead of Jason Dufner and Brandt Snedeker. The wives were free to pick their own gowns and they looked stunning. Bonus points to Kim (Mrs. Zach) Johnson for rocking blue satin while very pregnant. I would strongly encourage male readers to Google pictures of Amanda (Mrs. Jason) Dufner, Diane (Mrs. Luke) Donald, and Amanda Caulder, Dustin Johnson’s special friend. Jason Dufner looks increasingly like Alfred E. Newman; I tweeted from the red carpet about him being "overmarried" and before the night was out he replied, "Why would u ever under marry...DUH!!!"

I’m no Joan Rivers, but special mention must be made of Amy Mickelson’s spectacular black leather dress, which looked like something Carrie-Ann Moss would’ve rocked in “The Matrix.”  I’ve long noted the snakeskin Phil favors for his personal effects, and Amy’s dress was similarly serpentine.

“I’m basically wearing Phil’s shoes,” she said.

I asked Amy if I could touch her dress, for research purposes. She consented. It was a historic moment in golf journalism.

The players were then sequestered backstage and I returned to my seat to catch the musical stylings of Chicago, the classic rock group comprised of guys who are as leathery as Amy Mickelson’s dress. The set went on for an excruciatingly long time, but everyone else seemed to love it. I even peeped PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem boogeying in his seat, lip-synching a few lyrics. Which explains a lot, I think.

Finally, Timberlake commandeered the mic and announced each of the players, one-by-one. He did a fun Q-and-A with each guy that lasted just enough for the players to flash a little personality. Mickelson got a big laugh when he announced that in Ping-Pong he is “Matt Kuchar’s bitch.” Interestingly, Sergio Garcia earned one of the loudest roars of the night. This may be a nod to his magical run at the 1999 PGA Championship, which Medinah hosted. Then again, this is a city that roots for the Cubs, so clearly Chicagoans have a thing for lovable losers.

It was after 11 o’clock when the team buses were led away with a police escort. I hate to admit it, and I’m not sure the players would agree, but the Gala was a pretty good time. Put a fork in me, I’m done.

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