SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France — The first sign that the scene at the opening tee shots at this 42nd Ryder Cup was going to be a letdown was the presence of a mic’ed party-starter trying to whip the crowds into a frenzy.
Sweet 16s and bar mitzvahs need party-starters. The 1st tee at a Ryder Cup most decidedly does not. Or should not.
But there he was below the 7,000 or so fans who filled the towering, wraparound grandstand behind the tee: a spirited Frenchman charged with injecting some pep into les personnes. (What, no t-shirt gun?)
“Are you ready to siiiiiiinnnng?” he implored the masses.
They were not.
“Who wants to buy some merchandiiiiiiise?” he bellowed, before revealing that one lucky fan had a $250 merchandise credit tacked beneath his or her seat.
“And now let’s try a Mexican wave!!!”
The stupendous structure at the 1st has been a popular talking point this week at Le Golf National. Tommy Fleetwood called it “the biggest grandstand you’ll ever see at a golf tournament.” Noted Justin Thomas: “It’s like we have three massive buildings around us.” But on Friday morning, as the sun rose to the left side of the stands, casting a lovely glow over the property, the fans at 1 could have used another shot or two of espresso.
Here’s a theory: The grandstand is too big. Two years ago, the seating at the 1st tee at Hazeltine was roughly a fifth the size of the arena here, and the energy was positively electric. There was an intimacy to the proceedings, with the stands pushed right up against the tee box. Spine-tingling chants of “U-S-A” and “I believe we will win” cut through the chilly Minnesota air, as did the melodies of Europe’s lovable super-fans, the Guardians of the Cup. A pack of dozen or so middle-aged men dressed head to toe in yellow and blue, the Guardians returned for more merrymaking this week in France and they, too, noted the more staid vibe at the 1st. “Bit less raucous this year, eh?” one of them said as he exited the grandstand Friday morning.
None of which is to say the scene at 1 wasn’t still a spectacle, for both the fans and players alike. Ian Poulter came out before the first group went off at 8:10 a.m. and led the Viking-style cheer made popular by the Icelandic soccer team, though he had trouble getting the crowd in synch. As Tony Finau approached the tee, Phil Mickelson, coffee mug in hand, dashed out from a pack of players, wives and girlfriends to give his man a spirited pat on the back. Grown men in the grandstands donned clown hats and superhero capes. A French family visiting from Nice had the tricolors painted on their faces. U.S. Ryder Cup booster Michael Jordan looked on from a VIP viewing pen next to the tee. “I love you, Michael,” an American fan yelled. “I want to be like you!”
Among all the silliness there was, of course, golf to be played. The veterans — Rose, McIlroy, DJ, et al. — showed no obvious signs of nerves, striping their tee shots on the watery par-4 opener. The same could not be said of the rookies. Finau hit the first shot of the matches, a hard draw that tracked for the water down the left before mercifully trundling to a rest just a couple of feet short. Thorbjorn Olesen, another first-timer, playing alongside McIlroy, arrived on the tee looking like he was struggling to keep down his breakfast. The young Dane also tugged his tee shot but with a less fortunate result than Finau. Splash.
Tiger Woods was in the final group of the morning wave. A year ago the notion of Woods playing in this Ryder Cup was laughable, and yet here he was striding to the tee in a blue sweater with a white racing strip down the right sleeve. After the crowd paid its respects, Woods stepped in and did what he has been doing a lot of lately: split the fairway. Club twirl. Game on.
When that final group walked off the tee, the stands cleared as quickly as they had filled. The Guardians headed for the beer tent where they connected with another pack of Euro fans in masks and capes. Whatever spirit might have been lacking at the 1st tee was present in spades here as the men tipped back lagers.
“Yeaaaah, the boy can play,” they began, evoking the melody of the catchy 1963 hit, “Da Doo Ron Ron.” “Yeah, he’ll winnnnn today / we do Rahm Rahm Rahm / we do Rahm Rahm Rahm.”