Inside the ropes at the Ryder Cup: On the fairways of Le Golf National, there’s a lot more than just golf happening

September 29, 2018

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France — There are, of course, two sessions on Friday and another two on Saturday, with four points per session. The nightmare of Ryder Cup nightmares is to get swept in any session.

The U.S. lost its first three better-ball matches on Saturday. The possibility of an ohfer loomed. In the cleanup position, the Americans had Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas playing Ian Poulter and Jon Rahm. By the time the four golfers were hiking up the 17th hole, the Americans were clinging to a 1-up lead. An army trailed them.

A marshal said, “Half of France is out here.”

Actually, more like a who’s-who of the American golf scene.

The French crowd is coming out in full force this week.

There was Phil Mickelson, on the edge of the green, wearing gloves and holding hands with his wife, Amy, wearing team-issue suedalope. (You come to Paris, you better do the fashion thing well. In this department, the American women are killing it.) Over here was Jim Furyk, talking into his right wrist like a secret-service agent assigned to the president. There were American caddies and the wives of American caddies. Bob Rotella, the sports psychologist from Virginia, was on the scene, hands clasped behind his back. Rickie Fowler, of course, chatting up the wives. Fluff, behind the wheel of a red cart. A scene.

Corey Pavin, winning golfer in the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and losing captain in the 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales, looking around, trying to figure out something useful thing to do. You know, like Davis Love, as one of Pavin’s assistants, handing out dry towels in the rain in 2010. That’s a hallmark of Ryder Cup golf, its scenes, unlike any you see in other golf events. Ryder Cup golf is both the most scripted, and unscripted, of golf events. There are cameras on hand, recording everything. That doesn’t mean they capture it all.

Justin Thomas made a birdie on 17 and that secured a 2&1 American win in that fourth match, thereby ensuring there would be no better-ball ohfer. Spieth did far more talking than Thomas in their post-round interviews, but their faces said more than their words. Their words were measured, appropriately. Europe was leading, after all, 8-4. But their faces were screaming a single word: relief. When the mic was finally pointed at Thomas, he offered this: “What he said.” Thomas and Spieth are both 25, but this is Spieth’s third Ryder Cup, and Thomas’s first. Kid knows his place.

That’s a strange and different dynamic in Ryder Cup play, on the first two days, when each playing golfer has a partner, and those who aren’t playing are the designated cheerleaders. If you have a partner, the laws of social dynamics require you to play a role. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve played in a better-ball match. You both can’t be the leader of your two-man team. It’s true for us and it’s true for them. When Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed were Ryder Cup partners in 2014 and 2016 — Team Texas — Reed was the alpha dog. In Friday’s better-ball and Saturday’s better-ball, he was paired with a golfer with 80 Tour wins, 14 of them majors.

Patrick Reed, Saturday, 2018 Ryder Cup
Patrick Reed made just one birdie Saturday morning in another loss while paired with Tiger Woods.
Getty Images

Patrick Reed still looked like Patrick Reed. While Spieth wore a windbreaker and a ski cap with a pom-pom top, Reed was playing in shirt sleeves. This Patrick Reed is a man in full these days. You saw the shut-down move he made on the back nine, Sunday at Augusta, and the shut-down move he made afterward, if you had the temerity to ask him about his relationship with his parents. He owns his space. But in the Friday and Saturday better-ball sessions, he was in Tiger’s space. That’s how it goes, wherever Tiger is. You could look at Reed and see (this is sad) your duffing self, Saturday morning at home.

They switched up the order early on the front nine, just as we do in times of struggle, so that Woods would now play first. A few holes later, Reed was marking up a new sleeve of balls, as if he might need them, or as if they might bring him new luck. Sound familiar?

What an odd scene. Reed is one of the best golfers in the world, of course. But he wasn’t playing like one on Saturday. Tiger was given another chance to play Saturday afternoon, but Reed was not. The only role left was designated cheerleader. It’s not easy. You got to bury your personal and private red-ass and turn yourself over to team. Easier said than done.