Ryder Cup was great theater, and quite a classroom
Sandra Gal is a 27-year-old LPGA pro from Germany who played her college golf at Florida and now resides in Orlando. She won the 2011 Kia Classic and finished third at this year's U.S. Women's Open. She wrote about her experience at the 2012 Ryder Cup as a fan -- and budding reporter.
I have always dreamed of attending a Ryder Cup. As a girl growing up in Germany, it was male golfers, not female, who were my idols. I played a lot of golf with the best guys in my area, including a shy kid named Martin Kaymer. The guys inspired me to hit the ball cleaner, hit it just a little farther, be more creative with my short game, shape shots and learn to take and give the needle. Since there was a break in the LPGA schedule this time around, I jumped on a plane and headed to Chicago, hoping to cheer Europe to victory and maybe learn a few things along the way.
Being live at the Ryder Cup for the first time was like traveling on two passports; I was there as a spectator, but everything I saw was influenced by my experiences as a competitor. I knew everything those guys were feeling, having played on Europe's winning Solheim Cup team in 2011. On Friday afternoon I walked outside the ropes with the crowds. It felt like a walk in the park. Even though I was cheering for Team Europe, I didn't feel any pressure. My focus was somewhere else. I was fascinated by the brute power these guys were showing off. Or I got distracted by the height of guys like Jason Dufner, who seemed so much bigger on TV. (I'm six feet tall, which is helpful for spectating.) Simply put, I was a regular golf fan, and it was a blast.
I was battling my way through the crowds when I finally saw those guys live, the ones you always hear on TV. You know who I'm talking about -- the ones who constantly yell "Get in the hoooooooooole" and "Tiiiiiigeeeeeeeeer." They didn't even seem to have gone to the concession stand too many times. They were simply fired up about the game. I have to say, it was kind of contagious. I started cheering louder for Europe, which led to some good-natured comments from the other fans. Some rowdy Irishmen joined me to try to drown out the "USA! USA!" chants, but we were badly outnumbered. I was in that great amphitheater on the 17th hole when Phil and Keegan came through against Rory and G-Mac. I sat beside the green and tried to put myself in Phil's alligator shoes: 200 yards over water to a small green, you are a crowd favorite, all of Chicago is chanting your name in anticipation of a miracle shot -- and you deliver. To a foot. That was my first goose bump moment at the Ryder Cup. Even though I am a Euro with my whole heart, I couldn't help but smile and clap with huge respect together with the U.S. fans.
The whole day made me see competitive golf from a different angle. It made me realize and appreciate to what extent we actually are entertainers. Win or lose, we are there to give the crowds one heck of a performance.
On Saturday morning I had the privilege to walk inside the ropes in my guise as a Golf.com correspondent. Even though I wasn't performing myself, all of a sudden I felt like I was back at work. I could feel the nervous energy of the teams, the anticipation of the crowds and the pressure building and building. It was like being back at the Solheim Cup. One year ago, as a rookie on the team, I was extremely nervous. I had a pit in my stomach the whole time. There is nothing like the feeling of playing for your teammates, your country, your continent and most of all your fans. The fairways get narrow, the greens shrink to the size of a pool table, and even easy shots become difficult. I saw this when Masters champ Zach Johnson chunked a 30-yard pitch shot into a bunker, when U.S. Open champion McDowell missed a green by 40 yards and when FedEx Cup winner Brandt Snedeker fluffed a little chip shot from just off the green. You don't see mistakes like that at a regular Tour event.
I was watching carefully to see how different players handled the shaky hands and the feeling of their hearts pounding. How about Bubba Watson and Ian Poulter having the crowd cheer while they teed off on No. 1? How about Brandt Snedeker's pace of play? Before you figure out it's his turn to hit, his ball is already in the air. I studied him for a few holes. On every shot, once his eyes come back to the ball from taking a look at the target, he pulls the trigger. There is no room for second thoughts. This is his way of dealing with pressure. Then again, I bumped into his parents, who said they thought he was playing too fast. Then there's Furyk. He is the master of backing off shots until he feels comfortable. Once he does, not even the biggest roar will make him miss a shot. I was quite impressed with his tunnel vision. I also loved seeing the Duf's exaggerated waggles in person. Sergio could have hit three shots before Duf pulled the trigger once. But that is his way of feeling the clubhead and loosening his wrists. Staying in motion before you hit your shot is actually a great way of keeping the body in an athletic state.
I saw a lot of incredible, clutch golf up close on Saturday. It is the best feeling in golf, when you pull off a shot in front of thousands of people, when the situation most asks for it. It is indescribable. With adrenaline pumping, your senses are on high-definition, the ball comes off the clubface faster, your swing is in-synch, every inch of your body is ready. But all of a sudden I was pulled back into being a spectator again when U.S. assistant captain Fred Couples came walking toward me and said, "Hi Sandra, it's great to meet you!" We ended up walking together for a few holes and chatting. No, I wasn't even a spectator then. I was a little girl, meeting her golf idol. I still can't get over that he knew who I was.
On Saturday night I made the tough decision to fly home to Orlando. I had so much to do before leaving for the LPGA's Asian swing later this week, and I needed some rest to get over a cold I was fighting in Chicago. Of course I watched every second of the singles telecast, screaming at my TV as the Europeans made their incredible comeback. I was so happy that Martin got to sink the clinching putt. We still keep in touch by text. He hadn't been having the best season, but his attitude has been great and I knew he was going to find his old form soon. He picked the right time to do it!
At home I certainly had a great view of every shot, but I found myself missing Medinah. The electricity from the crowds was quite amazing. Being at the Ryder Cup only makes me more determined to get back to the Solheim Cup, so I can feel those emotions again as a competitor. In 2013 the Europeans will again be on American soil, at the Colorado Golf Club. There are a lot of lessons from Medinah I will be able to apply that week. The biggest one is that we should never, ever give up.