Commentary

Expect rattling nerves at the outset

Originally Published: September 25, 2012
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

MEDINAH, Ill. -- The stories are endless -- and a bit surprising. Accomplished as they are, as much as the players who compete in the Ryder Cup are experienced in the pressures of big-time professional golf, most are reduced to rubble when it comes time to launch their first shot.

This week's Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club features an amazing array of top-ranked talent, with none of the golfers outside the top 35 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Nine of the top 10 in the world are competing, with No. 23 Jim Furyk the lowest American and No. 35 Nicolas Colsaerts the lowest European.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelPhil Mickelson, who got in a little practice at Medinah Country Club on Tuesday, will be one of the steadying forces on the American squad this year.

To have so many big-name players entering Friday's start of the 39th Ryder Cup matches says something about the event's star power.

Yet to a man nearly all will be overcome with some form of anxiety early Friday morning.

"You can see your hand going as you put your tee in the ground," said England's Lee Westwood of the nervousness he felt in 1997 when he played in his first Ryder Cup.

"Everyone talks about that first tee shot," said England's Luke Donald. "I felt comfortable walking to that first tee. Excited. Like a major. But as soon as you tee off, that's when the nerves really kick in.

"Now I'm aware of it. Now I get nervous before because I know what to expect. But it's some of the most nervous I've ever been."

How nervous? When Donald played in his first Ryder Cup in 2004, his opening tee shot sailed 50 yards to the right of the fairway at Oakland Hills. Fortunately for him, his partner, Ireland's Paul McGinley, hit it right down the middle.

There is simply no way to prepare for the intensity, the pressure, the emotion.

Everyone in the Ryder Cup field has experienced the uncomfortable nature of professional tournament golf. There is not a player in the field without a professional victory. All had to deal with those feelings as they came down the stretch in a big tournament.

The Ryder Cup also features 11 major championship winners (seven Americans and four Europeans). Even that doesn't quite equate.

"I kind of compare the Ryder Cup to being like leading a tournament on Sunday afternoon," said Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open. "But that's the pressure you feel on the first tee. The difference between that and the Ryder Cup is you played really well to be in the lead [of a regular tournament], so your confidence is up. In the Ryder Cup, you haven't hit a shot competitively and the pressure is on, the heat is on.

"My advice to the first timers is, it's match play. Don't worry about bogeys. Don't even worry too much about pars. You've got to make birdies or you're going to get beat. Be aggressive. Swing aggressively, swing free and go for your shots. It's very aggressive match play."

Whether the newcomers will heed that advice is still to be determined.

The Americans have four players who have never played in a Ryder Cup: Jason Dufner, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Brandt Snedeker.

Simpson, at least, has the experience of competing in last year's Presidents Cup, where he partnered well with Bubba Watson and appear to be an obvious pairing here.

Colsaerts is the only European who has not played in the Ryder Cup, but the long-hitting Belgian won the Volvo World Match Play earlier this year -- in the final over McDowell.

U.S. captain Davis Love III has to juggle his rookies, hoping to give them the best opportunity to excel. The Watson-Simpson pairing appears to be a natural, as does Phil Mickelson and Bradley.

Having a veteran to lean on is important, but American Dustin Johnson said it's still a petrifying opening to the event. He was grouped with Mickelson -- who has played in every Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup dating to 1994 -- and still said he was nervous two years ago in Wales.

"I hit a heel slice into the right rough … over the crowd," he said. "It was a tough hole. It was [into the wind], blowing, raining, nasty. It was cold. It was little shaky getting that thing into the ground."

Didn't Mickelson help?

"He's important, but there's nothing he's going to say that's going to calm you down when you're standing on that first tee," Johnson said. "It doesn't matter who it is."

That's why it wasn't easy for Rory McIlroy, who also played his first Ryder Cup two years ago in Wales.

"The thing about the Ryder Cup is that it brings a completely different pressure than you face week in, week out, because if you play badly, it's all you. You're only letting down yourself," said McIlroy, who was paired with McDowell in his first match two years ago and earned a half against Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar. "You're not letting down your teammates or your captain or your country or anyone else. It just brings its own pressures. You're not just playing for yourself, you're playing for a whole lot of different reasons.

"That's something we're not quite used to doing, and it's something I struggled with at the last Ryder Cup. The first day I was so tight, I was so tentative, I was just trying not to make mistakes instead of going out there and freewheeling it, especially in the four-ball where you're out there and just trying to make birdies.

"I was sort of tense and tight, and once I freed up and started to play my own game, everything was fine. But that's the thing that I really felt; I was just trying to be so I was just trying not to make any mistakes but realize the best way to play in the Ryder Cup is just play the way you do when you play for yourself. And if you do that, you try and win as many points for the team as possible, and that's all you can do."

One aspect that could be a small help to the rookies who go off Friday morning is the format.

On the first two days, the opening session will be foursomes, or alternate shot. Depending on how the teams decide to attack the course, someone who is a bit edgy might not be teeing off on the first hole -- he gets to delay his angst a few minutes when he plays a shot from the fairway.

All of it makes Friday morning's opening of the Ryder Cup unique in golf. There is no easing into the first round of a tournament, no getting a feel for the course, no leisurely stroll down the first fairway, the birds chirping with just a few dozen spectators lining the ropes.

The grandstands will be packed as if it were late Sunday afternoon, the intensity just as high were it the back nine of a major championship.

And things will just be getting started.

"I've talked to a couple of guys about it," said Snedeker, who won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup on Sunday. "You're going to be nervous. Embrace it and move on. I think I'm going to be OK. I remember playing the Masters for the first time as an amateur [where he hit his tee shot so bad it nearly went out of bounds.] I'm expecting that. You can't function.

"However awful I feel, the guy I'm playing will feel just as bad."

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com