LOUISVILLE, Ky.(AP) The only thing missing was the bourbon.
Valhalla gave the Ryder Cup teams a warm Bluegrass welcome Thursday with the kind of pomp and circumstance normally reserved for the Kentucky Derby.
There were flyovers, marching bands, national anthems and the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” during the sun-splashed opening ceremonies, as thousands turned out to kick off the biggest golf event in the state’s history.
The festivities also drew out the differences between chatty European captain Nick Faldo and more reserved U.S. captain Paul Azinger.
Faldo gave an expansive introduction of each player and cracked jokes during a lengthy speech in which he invoked everything from the Derby to Louisville native and former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who made a visit to the course earlier in the day.
“We may look like we floated in on a butterfly, but we are here to sting like a bee,” Faldo said, borrowing one of Ali’s most memorable phrases.
Azinger, perhaps eager to get on with things as he tries to lead the United States to its first victory in nine years, couldn’t help but give Faldo a little jab when he finally wrapped it up.
“I’d like to thank Nick for being brief,” Azinger said with a chuckle.
The ceremony also included a gathering of some of the most notable captains in Cup history.
Ben Crenshaw, who captained the 1999 U.S. team and famously said he had “a feeling” before Sunday’s singles play that year even though the teams faced a hefty deficit, isn’t making any kind of predictions this year.
“I’ve got a feeling we’ve got nothing to lose,” Crenshaw said.
Jack Nicklaus, who designed Valhalla, and former European player and captain Tony Jacklin also spoke briefly about the 1969 Cup in which Nicklaus conceded a short putt to Jacklin on the 18th hole of their singles’ match, resulting in the first tie in Ryder Cup history.
Nicklaus said he decided to tell Jacklin to pick it up out of respect for how Jacklin’s team played that week. Jacklin, however, was too stunned to think about the ramifications of the gesture at the time.
“I was just relieved I didn’t have to make it,” he said.
FALDO ASSISTANTS: Much has been made of Faldo only having one assistant captain in Jose Maria Olazabal, while Azinger can rely on Dave Stockton, Raymond Floyd and Olin Browne.
Faldo, though, has a few backups to help him keep an eye on the four matches.
Billy Foster, one of two caddies for Sergio Garcia, is at Valhalla as an extra hand and will scout some matches. The other helper was a surprise – Martin Kaymer of Germany, who is ranked No. 43 in the world and nearly made the team.
“I had an idea a while back, that I felt it was a great opportunity to bring some rookies here who just missed out on the team,” Faldo said. “I thought it would be a good experience for them to come and feel it. They literally will be right next to me. I haven’t given Martin a role, but could send him out with another match.”
FURYK’S WIFE HOSPITALIZED: Jim Furyk skipped Thursday morning’s final practice round to be with wife Tabitha when she was taken to a hospital with intense back pain.
Azinger said Tabitha Furyk has a bulging disk that has been bothering her for some time. Azinger said Furyk was having a hard time concentrating and left to join his wife.
“She had a lot of discomfort in the back of her head kind of, nerves through a bulging disk and than can radiate,” Azinger said. “The word I got was that everything was fine; she’s resting comfortably.”
Azinger said Furyk has been hitting the ball well and didn’t need to squeeze in a final few holes. Furyk returned to participate in the opening ceremonies on Thursday afternoon.
MEETING “THE GREATEST”: Ali’s surprise visit broke up a relatively quiet morning at Valhalla.
Ali showed up in a cart on the 10th tee just as the American team began its final day of practice.
His hands trembling from Parkinson’s disease the former heavyweight champ waved to the cheering gallery. Ali got out of the cart to pose with the U.S. team for a photo.
After the final group teed off, the 66-year-old Ali drove to the front nine and met with the European team.
Some of the Europeans were already on the second hole when the call came in that Ali was on the grounds. They quickly hopped on a golf cart and sped back to the first tee while the caddies stayed behind.
The visit choked up Faldo, who declined to talk about it afterward.
“Don’t start me again,” Faldo said. “I’m about there with emotions this week, already. I need to get it out somewhere.”
Ali was born in Louisville, and both teams toured the Muhammad Ali Center earlier in the week.
GOING DEEP: U.S. Ryder Cup rookie and noted big-hitter J.B. Holmes didn’t miss a chance to show off on the practice tee.
Finishing his warmup Thursday, the Kentucky native grabbed his driver and pointed to the roof of the pavilion that was to host the opening ceremonies later in the day.
One mighty swing later, the ball clanged off the roof as the highly partisan crowd roared.
Holmes, however, wasn’t the only one playing to the fans during the final day of practice. European team member Ian Poulter was so confident after hitting a short putt that he reached down to pick the ball out of the hole before it even dropped.
One problem: it didn’t. The ball rolled around the cup and back out, and an exasperated Poulter feigned embarrassment while his teammates laughed. Poulter signed the ball and then threw it into the crowd, part of a competition between the teams to see who could sign the most autographs.
Felt black markers were in plentiful supply for both teams, a lesson the U.S. learned after the 2004 Cup at Oakland Hills. The teams agreed before the Cup that year to abstain from signing autographs, a deal the Europeans broke in an effort to curry favor with the U.S. crowd.
GALA NO-SHOW: The Americans won’t be able to blame a loss on having too many black-tie dinners.
For the first time, the PGA of America combined the welcome dinner (typically held Tuesday) with the black-tie gala dinner on Wednesday at the Kentucky Center in downtown Louisville.
So when the well-heeled VIPs took their seats for dinner, the players were in another room having dinner. Part of that was a response to last time in Ireland, when officials asked the guests to keep their space from the players, yet both teams were hounded by handshakes and autograph requests.
After the dinner, guests were invited into a theater where the players were introduced, and captains Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger answered questions from the emcee, NBC Sports anchor Dan Hicks.