GLENEAGLES, Scotland – As if players don’t already face enough pressure in the Ryder Cup, the walk into golf’s most boisterous arena goes through a tunnel of time.
One side of the short tunnel is painted American red and celebrates past victories, with images of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Paul Azinger and Ben Hogan. The other side is European blue with a roll call of winners that feature Tony Jacklin and Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer.
Emerging from the tunnel, players immediately see blue bunting on a three-story hospitality suite with the words, “Where Legends are Forged.”
Take a breath.
They make their way to the first tee, where a U-shaped grandstand has 1,892 seats filled with fans who are chanting, singing and stomping.
This is no ordinary golf tournament.
“It’s like walking into a football stadium,” said Stephen Gallacher, who grew up near Gleneagles and has never seen the course looking like this. Not with fans 10-deep on both sides of the fairway, draped in flags of the European Union, the nine European countries represented, and yes, even the Stars & Stripes.
“That tunnel has got some iconic images through it, and you’ll hear the crowd, you’ll hear the noise,” Justin Rose said. “You really begin to sense that even on the practice range. The atmosphere really amps up. … I can only imagine that by the time you walk to the tee, you’re fully ready to go. There’s absolutely no doubt.”
And there was one more touch to add inspiration to the home team.
From the first tee, players can’t help but notice a message written across the back of the 50-foot grandstand behind the 18th green to the left. It’s a quote from Seve Ballesteros, forever the face of European golf in the Ryder Cup.
“As a player and captain, there are unforgettable moments when you are competing for the people of your continent.”
Four long days of speculation and anticipation give way to the most frenetic three days in golf, starting with a tee shot unlike any other.
“It’s definitely the most impressive first hole we play throughout our careers,” Sergio Garcia said. “That tee shot on the first is always different, the way they build it up and all the songs you hear and everything.”
It all unfolds onFriday morning when Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson go for a third straight victory in fourballs against Rose and Henrik Stenson.
Considering the last two Ryder Cups – both European victories – were decided by one point, every match matters.
Europe has won seven of the last nine times, and it has not lost on home soil since 1993 when Tom Watson was the American captain. Going back in time to change its fortunes, the U.S. team brought back Watson to lead the way. At 65, he is the oldest captain in Ryder Cup history.
Watson stuck with what has worked, and he threw in a few wrinkles. Bubba Watson and Simpson won both their fourballs matches at Medinah, wrapping up both of them on the 14th hole. Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson went 3-0 at Medinah, and they are the anchor match against Rory McIlroy and Garcia, Europe’s most powerful tandem.
“We’re looking to hand them their first defeat tomorrow morning,” McIlroy said.
The new wrinkle? Old Tom Watson created the youngest pairing in Ryder Cup history with 21-year-old Jordan Spieth and 24-year-old Patrick Reed going against Europe stalwart Ian Poulter and Gallacher, another rookie and the lone Scot in a Ryder Cup that has not been held in the home of golf since 1973.
“I would imagine for the rookies, it’s going to be a bit of a shock,” Lee Westwood said of the first tee. “It’s a bit of an intimidating atmosphere, but nothing they can’t handle.”
Watson has been preaching redemption from the Americans’ meltdown at Medinah, where they lost the largest lead ever by a home team. Europe captain Paul McGinley is talking about a template of success, even though his four teams on Friday morning are entirely new.
“The fun is only starting now,” McGinley said. “We relish the challenge.”
Adding to the fun are the final two matches.
Poulter is like a peacock, strutting around Gleneagles, eager as ever to show off his Ryder Cup feathers. He was singled out even ahead of McIlroy – a four-time major champion and golf’s No. 1 player – as the one guy Americans would love to knock off. Watson is sending out a pair of rookies against him who have nothing to lose.
“I told them today, `I’m going to throw you in the ocean without a life preserver. You’re on your own. You get out there and you get it done,'” Watson said.
As for the anchor match involving Mickelson and McIlroy? Watson compared that match with the “main event in the first round.”
“Now see what happens in the next 72 hours,” he said.