HAVEN, Wis. — There was plenty about this year’s Ryder Cup that showed well on NBC’s broadcast. Lake Michigan looked Caribbean-blue in epic aerial shots. Viewers had such up-close access to first-tee pairings you could smell the players’ breath. And Sunday singles is the equivalent of NFL RedZone; there’s action at every corner of the course and the good folks in the truck ping around from match to match to match.
But part of our job as non-TV folks is to bring you behind the scenes and inside the ropes. They can’t show everything on TV, after all. So here, in lieu of our regularly scheduled Monday Finish, are 10 things that came through in person from Whistling Straits:
1. Police escorts
Nine short years after Rory McIlroy required a police escort just to make his Sunday tee time at Medinah, Friday morning arrived in Sheboygan County and golf fans were greeted by…a long line of traffic. It wasn’t shocking that there was a rush to get to the opening tee shot, but it was surprising just how backed up the final few miles got. So shocking, in fact, that it seemed to take tournament organizers themselves by surprise. And as we waited in stop-and-go traffic, flashing lights appeared in the sideview mirror as several police cruisers zipped by, escorting a U.S. team vehicle less than an hour before the first group went off.
Unlike McIlroy’s situation, this was hardly a race against the clock; Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, who’d been part of the escort, said they’d had plenty of time to warm up for their foursomes match. They proved it with a 5 and 3 victory. And by Saturday, organizers seemed to have fixed whatever was clogging the roads, leading to a seamless commute. But it pays to have those guys on speed dial, just in case.
I’m not interested in being the heckling police. There’s plenty of hand-wringing at Ryder Cups about whether fans can boo, whether they should yell at the players and whether they should cheer their opponents’ missed putts or poor shots. This is generally a waste of time because they will, they will and they will. Sometimes people are funny, most of the time they’re dumb and sometimes they’re offensive. But it’s mostly harmless; this is sports and sports are fun.
But there’s a sacred line in golf which, when crossed, can radically affect gameplay. You don’t mess with a golfer once they’re hitting their shot. That means no yells, jokes or camera clicks. Players are used to silence when they’re hitting, so a sudden, jarring interruption can then mean flinching and hitting some sort of disastrous shot.
At the emotionally charged Ryder Cup, that means extra encouragement to please behave yourselves from the people in charge. On Saturday, Viktor Hovland’s caddie made it clear that one photographer’s shutter was going off early. That same afternoon, Luke Donald took exception to another fan’s razzing. Volunteers shushed crowd after crowd, with mixed results. But the most effective encouragement came from the U.S. team members themselves. During foursomes, there was Xander Schauffele, walking onto the 12th green to an ovation but shushing the crowd so his opponents could putt. At No. 15, Jordan Spieth grinned at the crowd but told them to quiet down, too, so Tommy Fleetwood could focus. And even as he soaked in the Scot-tie Scheff-ler chants on the 17th green, the Texan lifted a hand to ensure the U.S. crowd simmered down.
Did a few fans overstep? Sure. And plenty of jokes didn’t land. But I didn’t sense overarching nastiness, and the U.S. team helped keep things that way.
3a. Brooks Koepka’s doink
One of the (many!) fun things about Ryder Cup team sessions is seeing players who aren’t playing that session come out to support their teammates. On Saturday afternoon, a couple hours after his first-tee chug, Justin Thomas settled on a sunny knoll overlooking the 9th green. Patrick Cantlay soon joined him. Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka were in the fairway, and while Spieth found the green Koepka airmailed his approach long and left, where it settled in a bush.
On Tour, this would be Koepka’s cross to bear alone, but in the Ryder Cup he had both Spieth’s green in regulation and Thomas’ moral support to lean on. The team stuff doesn’t always come naturally to Koepka, but he went back-and-forth with his spectator teammates before trying a desperation hack from the bush. His wedge caught a branch in his backswing, he barely made contact and the ball skittered off the toe of the club, traveling just a few feet.
There was an awkward silence; the crowd wasn’t sure how to react and his American teammates weren’t either. But then Koepka started laughing. He looked over at Thomas and started laughing harder. It was hard to tell whether the moment felt closer to Wow, this game really makes me look dumb sometimes or Yikes, that was embarrassing but I’d rather play it off as a light moment. I guess it could have been both. Either way, this was Koepka making a point of trying to bond with his teammates, even if it came at his expense. And he nearly chipped the next one in for par.
3b. Fitzpatrick’s chunk
The most painful shot to watch all week was one of the last. Matthew Fitzpatrick was facing off against Daniel Berger in the final singles match, and the two were tied going to 18. The match meant something for Berger, who was hoping to win and give the U.S. team a Ryder Cup record of 19 points. The match meant more to Fitzpatrick, who was playing in his second Cup but had yet to record a single point. Even a tied match would count for some sort of moral victory.
Fitzpatrick hit a perfect tee shot, a tight draw down the left side of the 18th fairway. He had 197 yards left to the hole, about the same as Berger had from the right side of the fairway. Fitzpatrick hit first, and at impact he — and the rest of the crowd — immediately knew it was no good. The sound was familiar and triggering to every golfer in attendance, the tempered thud of a chunk. He knew immediately, too, dropping his iron and sinking into a crouch, head in his hands. Berger followed quickly, playing to the middle of the green, safely 40 feet past the hole. That was that. 1 up, Berger.
4. Slippery slopes
Golf spectating is very much an outdoor activity. And while the players get to waltz through closely mown fairways and greens, those following along are relegated to the slick sideslopes of Whistling Straits’ dunes. The more people walked on these slopes, the slicker they became. As the early groups reached the back nine on Sunday, there was a boy on the right side of No. 10 using one slope like a sledding hill. That was the fun part. The flip side was those attendees who went rumbling, bumbling, stumbling against their wishes, all in the name of getting a front seat to the action.
On days when Team USA’s family and friends wore white pants, the grass stains made it clearly evident who’d taken a slide. Shane Lowry went down, too, as he tried to play a ball from off the fairway Friday afternoon. And a man dressed as George Washington took a big-time digger as he headed for the green right around the time Collin Morikawa clinched the Cup on Sunday afternoon.
And people say golf isn’t a dangerous sport!
5. Poulter’s passion
For years, Ian Poulter has been the European team member Americans have loved to hate. But it was hard to do anything but admire his play on Sunday as he birdied six of the first 12 holes to take down Tony Finau. Afterwards, he spoke to a small group of reporters on the emotions of the Ryder Cup, his desire to be back and the reality that he might not be. He spoke of the quiet on the car ride to the course that day, facing that reality. He delivered in spite of — or because of — his emotional response, maintaining his unbeaten career singles record. I didn’t get to the scrum in time to record it all but here’s what he told Sky Sports, which got at the gist of it.
“You put a point on the board and that’s all very nice but it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “OK, I’m unbeaten in singles. It’s nice personally but this is a team week and it is deflating.
“As a senior player on the team, you don’t really think there are many more left. I wanted to come here this week and give everything and in the first two days I didn’t manage to do anything. Today was to give something back, but you just don’t know if you get the opportunity to go again.”
6. Stefan’s plans
As he watched the points roll in from a comfortable perch beside the 16th green on Sunday, Stefan Schauffele was planning out the celebration that would follow.
“Certainly with alcohol, of unknown quantity — and then some,” he said. As for variety? “I will try not to mix. I will try to stay with wine,” he said.
As for Xander?
“I suspect he will mix. Most likely he’ll have whatever he can get his hands on.”
Based on the press conference that followed, that prediction was spot on.
7. Assistant captains, main event
I know they do stuff, and I know they’re heavily involved in coordination and lineup planning and logistics, but my main impression of Ryder Cup assistant captains is that they’re there to soak in the scene, interact with the fans and add to the overall vibe.
Phil Mickelson was very likely the most famous golfer at the event, and while he’d rather have been in the lineup than picking it, he seemed to thrive on the sidelines, too. Drinking coffee. Hanging out with Amy. Dishing out thumbs-ups from the back of his golf cart, the Philmobile, the Pope of Whistling Straits there to bless the people.
As Fred Couples strolled down the 16th hole as the U.S. wrapped up another dominant session on Saturday morning, one fan called out.
“Now you have to play this afternoon, Freddie!”
Couples looked over. He raised a brow, mischievous look in his eye. He gripped an imaginary golf club. And he made a little half-swing, as if to say, “I just might.” It earned a roar.
Martin Kaymer occupied the role of Young Assistant, which meant he looked every bit the part of a Ryder Cupper — decked out in team gear, pacing the fairways — without actually facing the stress of hitting the shots. Kaymer is just 36 years old, which means he could definitely still add to his four European team appearances. Perhaps a front-row seat to this loss helped spark that fire.
But as assistant captain you also run the risk of catching shrapnel, which is exactly what happened to Luke Donald as he knelt on the back of the 12th tee box on Saturday and found himself on the end of a simple, biting heckle.
“Hey Luke,” a fan yelled. “You’re old!”
8. Crowds, crowds, crowds
If you’re going to a future Ryder Cup, be warned: Many other people will be doing the same thing.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! It’s actually part of the reason that you should. But it’s important to recognize that going to a tournament in person will mean a distinctly different experience than watching on television.
First, let go of the idea that you’re going to see some huge quantity of golf shots. Instead, focus on the fundamentals. Get one of those radios, if they’re available, that allow you to beam in the broadcast while you walk around. Then get yourself something from the concession stand. And finally find a comfortable spot to stand or sit and watch the pros come through. You’re there for the energy, for the atmosphere and to root on your side. But rushing down a hole to catch a glimpse of a chip shot can be stressful, so I’d advise you relax, enjoy the walk and spectate smarter, not harder.
9. JT’s joy
It’s hard to track which American loves the Ryder Cup the most, particularly when you’re grading on a scale. The event took the game’s softest speakers and turned Dustin Johnson into team spokesman, Patrick Cantlay into a scowling hype man and Xander Schauffele into the delighted, wide-eyed center of the celebration.
But the player to whom this sort of American celebration seems to come most naturally is Justin Thomas, who has been loud, proud and dominant since he first donned a team uniform at the 2017 Presidents Cup.
(Sidenote: Apologies to Daniel Berger, who may in reality be the coolest member of Team USA.)
On Saturday morning he helped turn the U.S. lead into a rout, on Saturday afternoon he helped turn Whistling Straits into a party and by Sunday he was thrilled to be on stage, champagne bottle in hand, inhibitions a distant memory.
“It must suck to not be us right now. It must suck!” he yelled, jumping around the stage. Thomas was happy to be there.
10. Rory’s tears
If you were watching in the U.S., you likely saw Rory McIlroy tearing up in his NBC interview. But you may have missed the interview he conducted just prior with SkySports’ Henni Koyack, in which he broke down before he’d even gotten started.
I was lucky to be there as he tried to collect himself in the minute or so between interviews. He didn’t quite succeed. It was a remarkable moment for so many reasons — because of McIlroy’s vulnerability, because of his passion, because we sometimes assume that wealthy, successful athletes don’t particularly care when in fact, it’s the caring that made them wealthy and successful in the first place.
McIlroy mercifully finished off his slate of interviews and went to greet his wife Erica, who was standing behind the green. The two shared a long, teary embrace. It was a private, emotional moment that played out in front of thousands of spectators, which could have been uncomfortable but instead seemed to settle McIlroy. After all, these didn’t seem like tears of sadness.
Why such an emotional reaction? I kept mulling it over. A hundred reasons, I suppose. The pressure he’d assigned himself as team leader and the frustration he’d felt at an 0-3 start. The exhaustion of a long week in the wind and the sun and the crowds, fighting an uncooperative golf game. The relief in finally delivering a point for Blue, of staring down one of Team USA’s hottest players and coming out on top.
Five Ryder Cups ago, a 21-year-old McIlroy drew criticism for dismissing the Ryder Cup as an “exhibition.”
“It’s not that important to me,” he said.
Like everything McIlroy says, I’m sure he meant it when he said it. But now? Now he may be realizing that there’s a fleeting nature to these events. Majors come four times per year, and because of field size and qualifying, they’re comprised of basically the same cast of characters, year to year. But Ryder Cups come just once every 24 months. Just 12 players qualify for either side. We look forward to the new characters ready to join the cast, but that means there are others they’ll inevitably replace.
McIlroy will be on the European team that heads to Italy in 2023. But he has friends and teammates that may well not be. I think he wept because of time gone by. Because he’s learned to cherish Casey, and Westwood, and Garcia, and Poulter, whose Ryder Cup futures hang in the balance. Because professional golf is an isolating, individual game, except for this week. Because what is now will never be again.