SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – The monstrous first-tee grandstand at Le Golf National created a memorable spectacle but not a raucous scene.
Perhaps the most anticipated Ryder Cup ever got off to a strangely subdued start Friday, with few cheers, chants and songs.
Eager fans streamed through the gates at 6:30 a.m. local time and headed toward the massive stands behind the first tee. Built to seat more than 6,800 – easily the largest in tournament history – it’s an impressive structure that gave the Ryder Cup an even grander feel. But the late-arriving fans, either because of too many reserved corporate areas or heavy traffic in the area, didn’t even completely fill up the grandstand by the time the first fourball made its way to the tee.
In fact, the entire hour lead-in was surprisingly flat. The first loud cheer came at 7:37 a.m. – about a half hour before the first ball was in the air – as Ian Poulter ambled down the path to the left of the tee. He waved to the crowd, then apparently decided to join them – a few minutes later, he reappeared at the top of the grandstand, flinging hats and taking selfies as electronic dance music pumped through the speakers.
Poulter alone generated the type of energy that was lacking from the overcaffeinated French DJ, who called for fans to cheer “Golf (?)”, and stand if they’d visited the merchandise tent, and make some kind of noise that sounded like a Scooby-Doo impersonation.
At previous Ryder Cups the first tee has been rocking, so much so that players often felt the ground shake beneath them on the practice putting green. That wasn’t the case here, not even close, as Europe’s main cheering section was virtually silent five minutes before the matches began.
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They finally came to life when the first U.S. group of Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau arrived. Despite being a three-time major champion and now three times a member of a U.S. team, Koepka deferred to Finau on the pressurized opening tee shot of the matches. Amped up, Finau roped a 300-yard 3-iron down the left side of the fairway. The crowd immediately murmured, as Finau’s ball gained speed and headed toward the pond. Finau looked sick as he watched on the large video board to the left of the tee, but his ball stopped just shy of the water (though, as a right-hander, he still couldn’t take a stance and was forced to punch out down the fairway).
Though the cheers could be heard a few seconds before the action was shown on the video board, fans in the first-tee grandstand had a clear idea of what was transpiring ahead of them.
Jon Rahm played his approach to 15 feet. Hearty applause.
Then, even louder: A Justin Rose missile, to 3 feet for an early 1-up lead.
Imbued with confidence, the fans were more creative by the time the second group rolled around, whooping, Whoaaaaaaa hey! as Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler made practice swings.
Johnson got a kick out of that stunt, but he was forced to back off his opening tee shot when Rose polished off his birdie up ahead. Johnson would soon stuff his own approach, only to wipe his 4-footer that would have won the hole.
About 10 minutes later, even the partisan crowd couldn’t help but cheer Jordan Spieth’s wedge into the first green. His shot hit left of the cup and zipped back, off the flagstick, before settling 3 feet away for an opening birdie and early lead.
At 8:51 a.m., the final fourball came to the tee, featuring the biggest star of all, Tiger Woods. Not surprisingly, his partner, the villainous Patrick Reed, was booed lustily when he was introduced, and Reed responded with a mischievous smile. Unlike during the opening ceremony, when Woods received by far the loudest and most prolonged ovation, he heard only light applause as he prepared to play his first Ryder Cup since 2012.
It was game time now.