Nearly 50,000 mostly star-spangled spectators descended on Kohler on Friday morning, the quiet Wisconsin hamlet of 2,100 souls along the Sheboygan River that has become the focal point of the sporting world as the United States attempt to regain the Ryder Cup.
The masses arrived as early as 3.30am, an hour and a half before the gates opened, nearly all of them angling for a coveted spot on the horseshoe-shaped grandstand encircling the first tee which filled to capacity in less than eight minutes. The cascading strains of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline and staccato chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” that would resound throughout the Straits Course all day long briefly came to a hush when Sergio García led off the opening foursomes match. On a chilly morning, his tee shot landed against the edge of a bunker left of the fairway to kick off the last in a string of 2020-branded sporting events to be staged in 2021.
The typical home crowd support was further magnified in the Americans’ favor due to Covid-19 travel restrictions on European-based spectators. Flag-waving jingoism will always be a part of team competitions like the Ryder Cup where the bar of etiquette has traditionally been relaxed and there was no shortage of lusty boos reserved for Team Europe. But the well-documented fears of well-lubricated attention-seekers blurting “mashed potatoes” and “Baba Booey” during players’ backswings proved thankfully overblown.
The 7,224-yard track along the western shores of Lake Michigan was constructed late enough in the storied six-decade career of course architect Pete Dye to account for the modern needs of professional tournaments – from sufficient gallery positions to areas for corporate tents – and all were teeming with ticket-holders throughout the day.
Organisers couldn’t have dreamed of fairer weather as the early chill gave way to a sun-splashed morning and the players enjoyed conditions more benign than Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practice rounds. The red-white-and-blue clad hordes made for a rollicking atmosphere that wouldn’t have felt out of place at Lambeau Field, the storied home ground of the Green Bay Packers less than an hour’s drive northbound on Interstate 43.
Europe were first on the board when Jon Rahm and García completed a 3&1 win over Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas on the 17th hole, prompting melodic strains of “Olé, Olé, Olé” from the small but plucky European contingent of spectators, a mix of expats and intrepid travellers who managed to get into the country by indirect means, most commonly by way of Mexico.
García, after sealing his 23rd career Ryder Cup victory to match Nick Faldo’s all-time record, pumped his fist and congratulated his partner before blowing a kiss to the booing gallery. “We know that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said during the brief spell between sessions. “If they don’t get behind them in the US, where are they going to get behind them? You expect that. That’s something that you know is going to happen.”
Less than 10 minutes after Europe drew first blood, even louder chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” followed when Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa won 3&2 over Viktor Hovland and Paul Casey to move the Americans level. More of the same followed when Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay continued the US rookie run and finished off Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy to nose Steve Stricker’s team ahead. When Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger won 2&1 over Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick, the hosts’ flying start was complete.
The early lead, while of no grave concern to a European team that hasn’t led after the opening session in 15 years, created a bustling energy across the grounds as the spectators attended to business ahead of the afternoon fourballs.
The anticipation surrounding Bryson DeChambeau’s debut in this year’s event alongside Scottie Scheffler in the afternoon was immediately justified when he attempted to drive the green with his opening tee shot only for his ball to bounce off a woman’s shin into a dense patch of rough. Somehow, the 28-year-old managed to get up and down for a birdie and cue roars from the gallery, even more so when he cracked a remarkable 417-yard drive that left him 72 yards from the pin on the 581-yard, par-five 5th hole, leading to a straightforward eagle.
Johnson, who paired with Schauffele against Paul Casey and Bernd Wiesberger in the lead match, elicited one of the biggest reactions of the afternoon when he rolled in a 12-foot putt on the 11th to give the US total control of the tie – the type of spine-tingling moment that turned even NBA icon and Ryder Cup regular Michael Jordan into a fist-pumping fanboy as he looked on from just inside the ropes.
The essential nature of the fans to the Ryder Cup experience is perhaps the biggest reason why the PGA of America, which organizes the matchplay event in the United States, did not attempt to stage it last year even after it held a US PGA Championship at Harding Park without spectators. By the time Thomas and Cantlay closed out play opposite Tommy Fleetwood and Hovland late Friday afternoon, ensuring the Americans’ largest lead through day one in 46 years, the decision was validated beyond any doubt.
“The world needs a bit of a party and we’re happy to be the ones throwing it,” Seth Waugh, the chief executive of the PGA of America, said on Friday. “This is so much more than a golf event. It’s sort of a rock concert and a Super Bowl and a golf event all rolled into one.”