GUYANCOURT, France — Until it hosts 6,000 fans and bellows like the Superdome, the first tee grandstand at the Ryder Cup is bound to be under-appreciated. Just wait a couple days.
On a peaceful Tuesday afternoon, only a handful of people sprinkled the navy blue seats. Two women chatted in the sun. A handful of marshals shot the breeze in the breeze. A worker zip-tied wires to a pole. Down on ground level, Rory McIlroy rode by in the back of a golf cart. On first sight that day, the grandstand towered over the 4-time major-winner. Later on, he’d admit it gave him goosebumps.
By now, you’ve likely seen the behemoth. Maybe it gave you goosebumps, too. Ever since the first digital rendering of it was shared in early March, the ultra stadium seating is all anyone wanted to see. It’s all they want to take pictures of. It’s all they want to talk about.
“I looked up and felt like I kept looking up and up and up,” Patrick Reed said Tuesday. “There’s going to be so many people that are sitting in there. It’s going to be an unbelievable atmosphere.”
It shall be. Golf’s greatest grandstand stretches more than 100 paces wide, the majority of it overlooking the first tee. It’ll take you 80 heavy-breathing steps from the first row to the top perch. A maze of iron is hidden beneath.
Max capacity is 6,800, which is about five times the total at Hazeltine two years ago, and nearly three times the total at Gleneagles in 2014. The biggest problem might actually be filling it. Here at the most hyped event of the year and perhaps the most hyped Ryder Cup of all-time, it’s certainly a risk worth taking.
Youtube search: Ryder Cup first tee. You’ll find countless videos of the past three cups — Bubba Watson and Ian Poulter raising the roof at Medinah, the dewy and boisterous sunrise at Gleneagles and the “I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN” echos at Hazeltine.
You’ll also find interviews of players describing that first tee feeling. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: it’s unlike any other tee shot in golf. Fitting, then, that it now has an unparalleled spectator setting.
Tiger Woods thinks back to Wales at the 2010 Ryder. “I don’t know what it was acoustically, but they were so close together that it was reverberating. It was so loud.” To Patrick Reed, hearing it was his turn to hit in 2014 felt “like the air has just gotten sucked out of the room.” Jim Furyk recalls Valderrama in 1997 and the adrenaline that juiced the greatest 3-wood of his life.
Woods remembers Valderamma, too. He was set to play an alternate shot match alongside Mark O’Meara. Each of them anticipating (and perhaps already displaying) extreme nerves, neither wanted to take the first tee shot. Eventually, the veteran O’Meara won. “I hit a 2-iron,” Woods said. “I trapped it down in the fairway, and phew, it was all good.”
To know who’s behind this year’s big navy blue boogeyman, look no further than the European Tour (with some insight from captain Thomas Bjorn). The first tee is the epicenter for every Ryder Cup. They decided to inject it with steroids. Somehow they allowed the loudspeakers to blare “Born in the USA” Tuesday afternoon.
The only obvious way to make an already great thing better would be to make it closer. From the front row, there’s still 50-plus feet to the first tee. But will TV do it justice for those at home? A skycam, strung high in the sky by a pair of cranes, will soar over the practice green and up behind the stands. Yep, golf has gone full football. For Tiger Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava, Sunday at the PGA Championship felt like that — a football atmosphere. Friday at the Ryder Cup is more like a student section, only now you’ve jammed students from both schools into the same confined space.
Like any American sporting complex, there’s a cushioned-seat section where the pretty people sit and tented corporate suites overlooking it all. Good for them. Thankfully, plenty of the grandstand is first-come, first-serve. So, long before the players arrive Friday morning, a collage of red, white, navy, blue and yellow will arrive, bundled up for temperatures in the 40s, excited to simply stand and wait. Soon enough they’ll yell and cheer and do whatever they damn well please. This playground was built exactly for them.