First tee party: Kilts, chants and leprechauns (oh my!)

First tee party: Kilts, chants and leprechauns (oh my!)

This is not a golf tournament. This is a soccer match.

Earplugs were advised for those of a nervous disposition. The “grandstand full” signs were hung at 7am, one hour and five minutes before the first match was due to tee off. And the European fans won the early chanting contest. The first chorus of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” that echoed throughout Oakland Hills four years ago roared from the gallery at 7:45am. For an encore, fans from Over There offered up chants of “Europe! Europe!” and a ditty of “Where’s Yer Tiger Gone?” to the tune of Middle of the Road’s 1971 hit “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.” (Google it!)

It felt like a home match for Europe. Where were all those Kentuckians
that captain Paul Azinger had been whipping up into a frenzy all week? On Thursday night in downtown Louisville, Team USA even fired T-shirts bearing the slogan “I’m the 13th man” out of cannons to a frenzied throng. But for the Yanks, the collective 13th man was slow to get out of bed Friday morning at Valhalla. Maybe the bourbon down at the Fourth Street party was too good to resist.

When Azinger strode onto the first tee at 8:01am, the volume was
cranked up and he was greeted with a deafening chorus of “USA! USA!” The home fans were here, after all. Azinger milled among the media, shaking the hands of American and European reporters-a smart PR charm offensive.

Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim were first to arrive. The home fans’ chant of “USA! USA!” blasted through the early morning air and continued to ring out as Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson joined their opponents for the official photograph. As Harrington prepared to hit the opening drive of the 37th Ryder Cup, Mickelson and his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, stood behind his back as he addressed his ball. The 2008 British Open and PGA Championship winner asked them to move. Gamesmanship already, or merely early-morning crankiness from the World No. 2?

The Dubliner’s drive, of course, went straight down the middle. Mickelson matched him. No nerves here. Lefty’s alternate-shot partner Anthony Kim bent down in the fairway to re-tie his shoelaces before hitting his first-ever Ryder Cup shot. If you thought that was a sign of nerves for the Ryder rookie, a wedge to 15 feet said otherwise. Debuts don’t come easier than that.

But Karlsson’s wedge fizzed to five feet, and Harrington rolled in the
putt for a birdie. He simply doesn’t miss those anymore. He’s the Celtic Tiger. Europe 1-up, blue on the leaderboard. Not exactly the fast start for Team USA that Azinger had been talking up. Still, it was not as doom-laden as the message one local radio commentator sent to his drive-time listeners. “It’s 8:11am and Europe already has a sizeable lead,” he said, apparently watching another event.

Fourteen Irishmen ambled down the first fairway dressed as Leprechauns, complete with green boots, floppy hats and ginger beards, a grand idea likely hatched late last night halfway through a second bottle of bourbon.

Ryder Cup legend Colin Montgomerie roamed the gallery, too, resplendent in … a kilt! Sure, he’s only a cardboard cutout of his former self, but with those exposed alabaster legs, the Americans find him no less scary.