What’s it like on the first tee of the Ryder Cup? Pros describe the circus

Bubba Watson

Bubba Watson on the 1st tee at Medinah during the 2012 Ryder Cup.

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Collin Morikawa, in just over a month, will stand on the 1st tee at Whistling Straits for his first-ever tee shot at the Ryder Cup. He won’t be alone. If he’s in a foursomes or a fourballs group, another American will be watching. As will his European opponent. And a couple thousand fans around the tee box. And a few million at home. 

There’s first-tee jitters. 

And then there’s this. 

“I’m sure some guys will tell me about it, and they’ll tell me how nervous they were,” Morikawa said last week. “To be honest, thinking back at the other team experience, the Walker Cup as an amateur, I specifically remember that tee shot because I hit the first tee shot for the U.S. team and I was really just hoping to make contact.

“Obviously this has been years later now, we’re four years in from that, I’ve done a lot more, I’ve played professional golf, but the Ryder Cup just brings something different.”

Morikawa is not alone here, too. 

If some guys were to tell him about it, they would indeed tell him that the Ryder Cup does just bring something different. Three veterans said as much over the past two weeks. As Morikawa guessed, each said how nervous they were. 

And as he was hoping to make contact at the Walker Cup, so was Dustin Johnson at his Ryder Cup debut.

What will it be like for Morikawa? Johnson, Webb Simpson and Justin Thomas reminisce. 

‘I might not have hit the ball’  

DJ hit his first Ryder Cup tee shot on the par-4 1st at Celtic Manor in 2010. He and partner Phil Mickelson would lose the fourballs match 3 and 2 to Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer.  

“I was nervous, for sure,” Johnson said. “I think all week I had hit like 3-wood off the 1st tee, but it was early in the morning and I was definitely feeling it standing on the 1st tee. Playing with Phil, I think we were the first group out. Yeah, I was hitting the first tee shot.

“Yeah, there was no way I was hitting a 3-wood. I was hitting the driver, the biggest club in my bag, just because if it was anything else, I might not have hit the ball.”

Where did the drive go?

“I hit it all right,” Johnson said. “I hit it to the right, I do remember that. I don’t think I hit it very good, but I made contact with it. It was out to the right, then I hit a nice second shot, I think, with a 4-iron onto the green.”

How did it go from there?

“Yeah, definitely settled down a little bit after the first tee shot,” he said. “Especially over there, you get on the first hole, they’re singing songs and it’s a really neat experience, but — and it was my first Ryder Cup, so I was definitely feeling it.”

‘Then I’m playing with Bubba Watson … ‘

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Simpson hit his first Ryder Cup tee shot on the par-4 1st at Medinah in 2012. He and partner Bubba Watson would win their fourballs match 5 and 4 over Paul Lawrie and Peter Hanson.

“Honestly, Tuesday practice round, I was like just as nervous,” Simpson said this week. “I couldn’t believe the environment, the atmosphere. We’re hitting balls on the range on Tuesday and Keegan Bradley and I are looking at each other like, this is crazy.

“Then I’m playing with Bubba Watson on Friday, first match, and he throws his hands in the air, which I didn’t know he was going to do that. He gets the crowd up on their feet, loud as they can, and that’s probably the No. 1 tee shot that I’ll remember the rest of my life most vividly.

“I mean, he looks over at me, I’m standing on the left side, which I normally don’t, but I’m standing with [caddies] Teddy [Scott] and Paulie [Tesori], and Bubba looks over at Teddy and kind of gives him the ‘Should I do it?’ and Teddy nods, and I don’t know what’s coming and then that happens and he hits it 350 yards. There’s no environment, as you know, like the Ryder Cup, so that was a pretty memorable moment.”

‘Hands down the most nervous I’ve ever been’

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JT hit his first Ryder Cup tee shot on the par-4 1st at Le Golf National in 2018. He and partner and longtime friend Jordan Spieth would win their fourballs match 1-up over Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton

“It was hands down the most nervous I’ve ever been,” Thomas said last week. “It doesn’t even compare to as nervous as I was during the PGA or as nervous as I’ve been winning golf tournaments. It is just a total out-of-body experience. The best way to explain it to people, which is how I’ve explained it, because I hit a 5-wood off the 1st tee, I’m pretty sure, maybe 4-iron, but 5-wood and I don’t put it on a tee when I do that, I just kind of put it on the deck. I kind of dig a little thing in the ground with my club, and I’ll set it up on that. I’ve always said if I had to put it on a tee, I don’t think I could have. I would have been too nervous to where I would not have been able to get a ball on the tee.

“That’s when I was very, very glad to have Jordan as my partner and someone to calm me down and make as many birdies as he did because that’s why you want to be there. The pressure, it’s a privilege, you want to be able to feel that, and if you didn’t feel that, I mean, then there would be no reason for me or any of us to be playing. That’s why I turned pro, that’s why I’ve gotten here is to be playing in a Ryder Cup and to have those experiences. If you’re never getting that moment, you never learn, but that was pretty nuts.”

Why is it so nerve-wracking?

“I think it’s a lot of things,” Thomas said. “I think the Ryder Cup is just as big as it gets. It’s the biggest crowds that we’ll probably play in front of. Yeah, there may be more people at the Masters, but there’s four matches on the course at the Ryder Cup, and I don’t know how many people go to a Ryder Cup a day, but you do the simple math — you divide it into four, you could have 20,000 people watching your match. Then in France you had, I don’t know how many it was, 8,000, 10,000, 6,000, however many it was in that huge grandstand, and it’s so quiet that you can hear a pin drop, but you know as soon as you make contact, the place is going to erupt. 

“It’s bizarre, but it’s the coolest feeling. It’s hard to explain. Yeah, out of body, like I said earlier, is the best way to explain it.”

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