The Ryder Cup’s most revealing spot comes just before you’d expect
ROME — It was just before 7:30 a.m. local time on Friday when Jon Rahm came off the rear of the practice green, slung one powerful arm around the shoulder of Tyrrell Hatton and offered a two-word urging.
At the Ryder Cup, the first-tee grandstands get all the attention. The thousands of fans singing toward the sunrise. The Viking cheers. The home-team roars. Generations of Ryder Cup veterans agree: It’s the most wonderful, most nerve-racking tee shot in golf.
There was a literal race to the first grandstand when the gates opened on Friday morning. Those without VIP access queued up, thousands strong, waiting for marshals to open the barriers to let them through when daybreak officially hit. Once they had the chance they streamed past the range and the practice area, racing to line the first fairway, a dozen deep or more.
But I found myself drawn to that green.
The setting serves as match-play green room, a place for pros to experience a final few moments of comfort before entering the thunderdome. It’s removed from foot traffic and set back slightly from public viewing, so it remained relatively serene as the mayhem swelled from the grandstand, the equivalent of a small city park a couple blocks from a concert venue.
Rahm and Hatton marched off in the direction of the first tee, two bearded men in blue ready to rile up the local faithful. Soon Scottie Scheffler wrapped up work on the green, too. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone spend as much time on a putting green as Scheffler has this week; the sweet-swinging American seems determined to grind his way, two hours at a time, through his struggles with the shortest club in the bag.
But how do you really prepare for what’s to come? Scheffler had no idea in that moment that his partner Sam Burns would set him up with a seven-footer at the par-3 4th that would have tied the match with birdie. He had no idea that when he missed that putt the match would never again be as close. He had no idea that by the time he returned to the practice green four hours later it would be with gritted teeth and a 4-0 points deficit. That’s the beauty of the pre-tournament practice green: It’s filled with undefeated players.
Putting guru Phil Kenyon, who been working with Scheffler throughout the week, retreated to the back of the green as the first foursome headed to the tee. There he began a chat with Stephen Sweeney, short-game coach to Collin Morikawa and Shane Lowry, among others. Both coaches are European and wore the side’s blue-and-yellow kit but they’ve been balancing their allegiances; Kenyon would be helping Tommy Fleetwood with his warmup a little later, while Morikawa and Lowry were on opposite sides of the third match of the day. It’s a small world out here, whatever the uniforms.
Viktor Hovland appeared from the chipping green with his coach Joe Mayo, his Yoda, partially credited with Hovland’s ascension to the game’s highest level. Whatever they’d just done for warmup worked well: In just a few minutes Hovland would chip one from the right side of the green on No. 1 — and hole it.
Hulking rookie Ludvig Aberg, whose hype train blew its brakes this week, rolled a few 15-footers. A giant video board behind the green showed Jon Rahm stepping into his opening tee shot; Aberg paused his routine to watch. Lowry joined by his side, smily, bouncy, high-energy. Aberg looked distinctly unaffected by any of it. That’s his vibe.
Harry Diamond, caddie to Rory McIlroy, appeared by the green’s edge. The forecast projected it’d be nearly 80 degrees by the end of the morning session but the green was still in shade; the sun hadn’t yet risen above the grandstand. “Chilly, isn’t it?” he said to one onlooker. Not for long.
Roars from the first signaled the premier group was off. Hovland and Aberg prepared to make the walk for their 7:50 time. Max Homa, one of their opponents on the U.S. side, was stone-faced as he sheathed his putter. His caddie Joe Greiner looked back to double-check that their partner Brian Harman was ready; the team format means more horses to worry about and, as another caddie had just said with confidence, the walk to the first tee takes three-and-a-half minutes. Greiner exchanged a head-nod with Harman’s caddie Scott Tway, who was standing guard while Harman worked on a final putting drill.
“Six minutes to time,” Tway told his man.
Once the golf had started Lowry’s warmup had effectively ended; he kept his eyes trained on the screen as his teammates advanced up the opening hole. As he reached the first tee he watched Hovland chip in from the edge of the first green.
“I was trying to stay calm and started losing my mind on the first tee,” he said later. “Yeah, for a guy they say can’t chip, Viktor did all right on that hole.”
Contestants from the session’s flagship matchup appeared on the green. Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay were pitted against Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood, arguably four of the top seven players in the world squaring off. Cantlay and Schauffele spend as much time together as any duo on Tour but are hardly expressive in their companionship. Fleetwood and McIlroy greeted each other with greater affection; they seemed eager to draw energy from the partnership. If there was a consistent theme to the proceedings it was that Team Europe looked, as a whole, far looser than their American counterparts. That’s a personality thing as much as anything; most of ’em are independent operators. It’s only when things go wrong that the approach seems so obviously inferior.
I returned to the practice green at the conclusion of the first session. There was Harman, fresh off a 4-and-3 defeat, rolling 10-footers. There was the duo of Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, who’d been mysteriously benched for the first session, getting ready to lead the U.S. side out in the afternoon. But a few minutes later, when it came time to head to the tee, Spieth looked around.
Spieth looked more bemused than concerned; he seemed perfectly comfortable with his partner’s absence despite the three-and-a-half minute walk to the tee and the pressure chamber that awaited.
“Ehh, don’t worry,” he told Mick Donaghy, caddie to his opponent Tyrrell Hatton. “JT will join us on 3.”
But then Thomas appeared from nowhere, charging towards the stairs behind the green in full stride, Airpod still in one ear, tinge of red distinctly in his eye.
“All right!” Spieth said, grinning at his partner’s intensity. He turned and tucking in behind, bounding up the stairs, bridging the warm-up and the real thing.