Fergus at the Ryder Cup

September 2008

In just under five days Neil and I set off for Kentucky and the 37th Ryder Cup. The last time I was this excited was back in 1986 when I was given a BMX for Christmas – a Raleigh Burner with red flames all over the black frame… a real beauty.

For me, the Ryder Cup eclipses all other golfing events in terms of getting my competitive juices flowing. In individual strokeplay tournaments I don’t have a favourite golfer who I want to win each week. (Obviously, I like to see the Brits doing well, but beyond that I’m not fussed.) But, come the Ryder Cup, I support the Europeans as vociferously as I would Scotland in the rugby or Andy Murray in the tennis. It’s actually quite a strange sensation to have when watching golf and I only get to experience it once every two years. I look forward to it keenly.

Normally I watch the Ryder Cup standing up in, or pacing around my sitting room. This time, however, I’m actually going to be there. I can’t wait to hear the roar of the crowds when the first group stands on the tee; to see if there are boo’s for the Europeans; to see what god-awful strip the Americans are wearing; to see if Faldo picks any controversial pairings; to see if Hunter Mahan can cope with being a “slave” for the week. In short, I can’t wait.

I’m actually hoping for a really partisan crowd like at Brookline so I can feel even more pumped up when a European holes a crucial putt or sticks an approach shot close. I also hope it goes right down to the wire unlike the last two contests. I’d love to see Sergio Garcia hole the putt that wins the Cup for Europe by half a point – just imagine his reaction if that happened…

Time is going to pass unbearably slowly between now and our departure next Wednesday. I wonder how many times I can watch my DVD of the K Club ’06 between now and then?

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Fashion choices

The European Ryder Cup side has arrived in Valhalla and all the chat is very positive so far. Faldo has said, “I have 12 guys who all want to win, simple as that.” That’s very good Nick. In “Team Captaincy 1001,” lesson one starts with: ensure your team actually wants to win.  He also says he has a couple of ideas up his sleeve. I think that’s a bit worrying, I can just see him sending Oliver Wilson and Ian Poulter out as first pairing on Friday.

Talking about sleeves, I’ve just been looking at a video of the European side arriving in the States. They’re wearing matching outfits that can only be described as brown. I was reminded of the last time I bit into a Milky Way.

I’m just about to leave the house and am finalising my own wardrobe choices. I looked at the weather forecast for Valhalla and was somewhat concerned – it’s going to be 30 degrees centigrade and 75% humidity. My autumn/winter collection is extensive but when it comes to summer attire I’m a touch limited (given the highest temperature recorded in Aberdeenshire this year is 9 deg C, there’s not much call for linen trousers and Hawaiian shirts). I have cords and lambswool v-necks coming out of my ears but anything thinner than about 11 tog is sadly lacking from my shelves.

Aha… I’ve just found a pair of Kickers shorts circa 1994 so I think I’ll be ok. They’re a long way from stylish so I should fit in a treat in Kentucky.

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In-flight musings

With a long way still to go on our long haul flight to Detroit, I had a long time to consider the best method to deal with spending an exceptionally long time in a big metal tube hurtling through the sky at 500mph, 40,000 feet up.

Neil and I have slightly different techniques. He opts for the sensible way – regularly changing his situation – getting up for a walk, watching a film, reading a few pages of his book etc… I suppose this method should, theoretically, cause time to pass more quickly. I reject that philosophy. I go for stony-silence, sitting absolutely still and staring straight ahead, not getting up at all (not even to go to the toilet.) It’s a sort of gritty Scottish approach to travel relying purely on will power to get you through. I’m sure this is the technique Monty would have been using had he been on a trans-Atlantic flight this week.

But, as Monty’s non-inclusion in this year’s Ryder Cup team proves, inordinate amounts of grit and determination can only get you so far. And, I must confess, six hours through this flight I’m getting a little bored and really need the loo.

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Valhalla – First Impressions

Neil and I woke like children on Christmas morning at about 6.30am today. “Are you awake?” I said nervously. “Yes, for about the last three hours.” Came a reply through the darkness.

We decided we just couldn’t wait any longer so headed straight for the course. As the bus pulled up through the gates of Valhalla the morning sun was poking it’s head above the tree-line and we were given our first glimpse of the turf on which the 37th Ryder Cup will be won and lost.

The first mission of the day was to go out and assess the course. Brits, (I really mean me here), can be a little snobby about American courses and modern American Jack Nicklaus designs in particular. I’ve always pictured sprawling flat bunkers, huge green complexes, massive water hazards and no trees. Well, Valhalla is not like that at all. It has the feel of an old British parkland course – a Wentworth or a Woburn.

The start is a little inauspicious with electricity pylons towering above the first few holes but as the course moves on and into the back nine, the holes become extremely picturesque with greens and fairways framed by huge old trees and bubbling creeks. There are changes in elevation as the fairways sweep through the trees, it means there are a number of great vantage points for spectators that should only add to the atmosphere.

In general, the course looks to be in immaculate condition. Neil said he was reminded of Augusta by the pristine tees and fairways. The greens look to be pretty fast too. We saw Phil Mickelson on the practice green tickling putts down the slope that looked to have no hope of reaching a cup some 30 feet away, but many were rolling three and four feet by.

There’s no real evidence of damage from Hurricane Ike. There are a few twigs in the rough but that’s about it. The organisers have clearly done a sterling clear-up job.

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First tee

Wow. I’ve just come back from the first tee where Neil and I stood in the stand and cheered every player in the first four matches. I can honestly say it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Strolling back to the Media Centre, Neil and I were pretty much silent save for the occasional utterance of, “Oh my god.”

The pressure cauldron of that first tee is difficult to describe. When the players approached the roar that went up was amazing. Even cheering as loud as possible, you still couldn’t hear your voice. And the great thing was, it was clear the players were absolutely loving every moment of it. Ian Poulter gave a little nod and smile to the crowd that conveyed the feeling, “Yes, this is pretty cool isn’t it.”

Then, as each of the players prepared to take their shots, the cheers ceased and the silence was deafening. It was awesome that the focus of so many people was directed towards one person. And each of the guys who drove – Harrington, Mickelson, Leonard, Casey, Campbell, Rose, Furyk and Westwood – dealt with it superbly. To stand up with that level of scrutiny upon you and to boost a drive away down the fairway displays just what talented and poised sportspeople they are. I am feeling very impressed. If it had been me in that situation I think I would have just wanted to curl up into the foetal position and cover my ears until everybody went away.

Special credit must go to Padraig Harrington who hit the first tee-shot of the competition when levels of expectation were at their highest. He fired one long and straight down the middle of the fairway – then converted Karlsson’s excellent approach for a birdie three that took Europe into the lead after the very first hole of the match.

Until this point I’ve found it difficult to believe I’m actually at the Ryder Cup, but after that experience reality has hit home – I am here and it’s game on!

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So little time

I’m feeling a bit flustered at the moment because there’s just so much I want to do today and I don’t see how I can fit it all in. I want to go out on the course and watch some more live golf, but I’m struggling to tear myself away from the big screen because I don’t want to miss a moment of the action. I also want to go to the merchandise tent and purchase as much Ryder Cup 2008 kit as I can possibly fit in a holdall, but I also need to get some food. Oh no…. food… more decisions. Do I want a breakfast burrito or pancakes and syrup, a hot dog or an ice cream (no Magnums sadly).

Right, I’m just going to have to sit still until I calm down a little and begin thinking rationally again.

I’ve just seen something that made me laugh. Someone has brought a cardboard cut-out of Monty with them – brilliant.

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Ryder Cup Shopathon

A visit to the merchandise tent here is quite an experience. I’ve just done it and feel a little shell-shocked. It’s about the size of two football pitches and is packed to the gunnels with all manner of things bearing the Ryder Cup logo. I think I saw a Ryder Cup toothbrush in there.

I would estimate there were something in the region of 1,000 people in the tent, all clambering to get their hands on things like mauve and lilac Ryder Cup tank-tops and Ryder Cup shot glasses. I was keen to get some souvenirs but the sheer scale of the place got to me. I wandered through in a confused daze, unthinkingly throwing items into my shopping bag. “Polo shirts, yes I’ll need a few of them. Hats? Oh yes a couple I think. A windcheater? Why not…”

By the time I reached the checkout I had enough clobber to kit out my own Ryder Cup team. A quick bit of mental arithmetic while in the queue and I suddenly realised I was about to spend nearly $600. A swift about-turn ensued and I began the ignominious task of trailing back through the store replacing the vast majority of items I’d selected. Another 10 minutes and I was back at the till with roughly a third of what I was originally going to leave with. It’s a very dangerous place and I won’t be going back.

As I write this, things are looking a little sketchy for the European side. After a very promising start to the foursomes, the US roared back towards the end of the round and could easily have won all four matches. As it was, Harrington and Karlsson and Westwood and Garcia scraped halves and the first session finished 3-1 to the Americans. It looks like this afternoon could be a tight affair too.

The surprise package is the pairing of Mahan and Leonard – they saw of Stenson and Casey by 3&2 this morning and are already two up on Garcia and Jimenez this afternoon. Mahan has started birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie. Anyone would think he had something to prove.

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Ryder Cup – day one quotes

Neil and I have enjoyed a great Thursday out and about in Valhalla. The atmosphere has been fantastic all day long and the fans have generally conducted themselves admirably. We’ve heard some pretty amusing stuff through the day though and thought we should share some of the best quotes:

“The European team has a guy called Oliver Wilson? Who the hell is he, a member of parliament? Nick Faldo’s butler?” – Rick Reilly on ESPN radio.

“Where’s your Tiger gone?”  – Sung by the European crowd around the first tee at 7.30am this morning.

“Where’s Luke McDonald this week?” US fan by the 17th green.

“He’s practically taken a brass-rubbing of this green.” – Andrew Cotter on Padraig Harrington after he took roughly three days to read his birdie putt at the 16th.

“There’s a reason why no Scandinavian has won a Major – They’re too nice. And Faldo has three of them on his team!” – Rick Reilly again.

“What do you mean you’ve run out of XXXL?” – A generously proportioned chap disappointed by the selection in the merchandising tent.

“God it’s hot today!” – Neil to a chap from Arkansas called Justin by the 11th tee.

“You call this hot?!”  – Justin.

“We got half a point, it’s actually a point as they lose half a point and we win half a point.” – Lee Westwood displays his own brand of logic after the foursomes.

“Get in the jug!” – An interesting variation on an old classic.

“Do you guys wrestle orang-utans too?” – John Inverdale to a group of Boo Weekley fans.

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The strange world of Nick Faldo

There is a general feeling of disbelief and confusion on the European side of the media centre this morning. Just what is Faldo playing at? In what world can he think it’s a good idea to drop Westwood and Garcia? – a pairing that’s unbeaten in their last 9 Ryder Cup foursomes matches and managed to scrape a vital half yesterday morning.

Just what strange whim has led him to believe that Oliver Wilson should make his debut in foursomes alongside Henrik Stenson? I could see them as a possible fourball partnership but I have my doubts that they will gel in foursomes. And, they’re facing Mickelson and Kim – basically, they’ve got no chance.

Jimenez and McDowell – again, who knows how they’ll get on together? Maybe Faldo does, but I doubt it. They take on Mahan and Leonard, the star pairing for the US yesterday. If this European duo were a pair of cats hovering around the gates of hell, I’d seriously recommend they didn’t go inside.

Poulter and Rose are about to lead us off. I really can’t understand the amount of trust Faldo’s putting in Poulter. Well, I can actually. He’s attempting to justify his decision to pick the Englishman ahead of Darren Clarke. It seems to me Faldo is far more intent to prove himself a great captain than he is for his team to win. What he seems to have forgotten is that in order to be considered a great captain, your team really has to win.

 

A view of Kentucky

In a piece I wrote a couple of months ago, I talked of how ignorant I was about the State of Kentucky – Neil has mentioned my comments in one of his superb blog entries further down this page. Well, I thought I ought to take a moment to tell you what I’ve learned of the place so far.

First of all, the State is officially known as The Commonwealth of Kentucky. It’s generally considered to be one of the Southern States but occasionally it’s described as being in the Midwest. It was originally part of Virginia and it became the 15th State to join the Union in 1792.

Neil and I were lucky enough to be invited to a party on Thursday night hosted by the Kentucky Tourist Board. It showcased two of the most entertaining things Kentucky is famous for: Bourbon whiskey and Bluegrass music. 

Bourbon County is in the northeast of Kentucky and is home to some 20,000 people. It’s also the home of bourbon whiskey. We sampled a selection of Kentucky’s finest bourbons including Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve and, the interestingly named, Knob Creek … all very nice indeed.

Bluegrass is basically country music, but you can hear its Scottish and Irish roots in the melodies and rhythms. A fabulous band played at the party and we thoroughly enjoyed their lively tunes for about an hour and a half.

One of the greatest sportsmen of all time, Muhammad Ali, was born in Louisville Kentucky. The city and the State are rightly proud to have him as a son and there is a museum dedicated to the great man in downtown Louisville.

As a place, we haven’t seen a huge amount of Kentucky. We’re staying in a Holiday Inn on the side of the motorway and we’ve been ferried from there to the golf course and back each day. But, I’ll tell you what I think of what we’ve seen.

There are a scary number of churches and many of them are absolutely huge. Last night I watched a political debate show on Louisville TV, there was an absolutely terrifying woman who spoke in favour of John McCain. She appeared smartly dressed and well educated but her views were extreme. She spoke about abortion and how, if you consider that life begins at conception, then abortion is murder and if you also consider that McCain (and she) believe in capital punishment then anyone who aborts an unborn baby should be executed…. Unbelievable stuff.

Everything here is geared towards driving. All the shops, restaurants, banks, insurance brokers, everything in fact, appears to be basically a drive-through. The roads are a bit of a shambles – huge freeways with massive intersections with traffic lights that change approximately every 15 minutes. People do a good deal of sitting still in their gas-guzzlers.

As in all of America, there seems to be a huge divide between the rich and poor. The other day we took a detour through one of the wealthier residential areas and I was amazed by the size and opulence of some of the homes – huge villas with pillared fronts and sprawling gardens. But, some of the other areas we’ve seen look far less plush – run down shacks and trailer parks. In the aftermath of hurricane Ike some of the news channels have occasionally shown the conditions that the less fortunate residents are living in – not exactly the American dream.

On the whole, the people here are extremely friendly and welcoming. They are genuinely interested in where you’ve come from and they want to help you in any way they can. The fans at the golf course may be loud but they’re certainly not nasty.

So do I like it here? Yes, I think so. The countryside is pleasant, the culture is interesting and the whiskey highly palatable. Would I live here? No.

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Oliver’s sad twist

I’m feeling pretty sorry for Oliver Wilson at the moment. He just put on a superb debut performance alongside Henrik Stenson to beat the star US pairing of Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim by 2&1 in the Friday morning fourballs. After not being selected to play at all on Thursday, the young man from Mansfield was under pretty enormous pressure to perform.

Stenson and he went four down through six holes and almost everybody wrote the point off. But the pair battled back admirably and, aided by a back nine meltdown from Mickelson and Kim, the European duo won it on the 17th when Wilson holed a superb birdie putt.

What a moment it was for the rookie and what a high he must have been on as he walked off the course to cheers of “Europe, Europe.” Imagine, then, how gutted he must be feeling this afternoon to not be one of the eight Europeans out on the course. The poor lad has played in just one of the four sessions so far, but he defeated the World number 2 and World number 10 to be the only European with a 100% record.

Let’s just hope the Englishman takes thoughts of his foursomes performance this morning rather than the lack of faith Faldo has shown in him, into tomorrow’s crucial singles matches.

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After witnessing the most exciting afternoon’s golf we’ve ever been a party to, Neil and I are on a bit of a high. But that’s all in the past now and we’re looking towards more of the same tomorrow. Sorry I can’t resist, I’m going to have to reflect briefly – Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell were ten under better ball to win one up. Karlsson and Stenson played the back nine in 30 to half with Mickelson and Mahan, Karlsson made four birdies in a row between the 12th and 15th. The European fourball pairings finished -19 combined – Incredible.

Anyway back to the future, we thought we would try and imagine the inside of Azinger and Faldo’s minds at this crucial stage of competition and attempt to predict their line up for the Sunday singles. Here we go:

Fergus Faldo’s European 12 Vs Neil Azinger’s US 12

Ian Poulter vs Kenny Perry

Sergio Garcia vs Jim Furyk

Soren Hansen vs Justin Leonard

Graeme McDowell vs Anthony Kim

Oliver Wilson vs Boo Weekley

Paul Casey vs JB Holmes

Miguel Angel Jimenez vs Ben Curtis

Lee Westwood vs Chad Campbell

Henrik Stenson vs Steve Stricker

Justin Rose vs Hunter Mahan

Padraig Harrington vs Stewart Cink

Robert Karlsson vs Phil Mickelson

Envelope (that is the player you have to nominate to pull out should a player on the other side be forced to withdraw because of injury).

Oliver Wilson & JB Holmes

 

Early yesterday afternoon Neil and I were feeling a little jaded and were considering watching the fourball action on the big screen in the comfort of the media centre. But, girding our loins, we forged out to catch half an hour of live action. This proved to be just about the greatest decision since a bored caveman picked up a couple of sticks and decided to start rubbing.

We walked to the hill behind the 10th green from where we had a view over to the 11th tee and 11th green. As the first match – Boo Wekley and JB Holmes vs Lee Westwood and Soren Hansen – approached, we got the first hint of a feeling that something exciting was going to happen.

The crowd following Weekley was boisterous – we stood beside a group dressed in camouflage gear screaming “Booooo” at the top of their voices every five seconds or so. We were wondering what would happen if Boo ever did something that met with a crowd’s disapproval – what would they shout at him then?

As the groups came through the atmosphere began to build and, by the time the last fourball – Mickelson and Mahan vs Stenson and Karlsson played into the 10th green, Neil and I were more excited than a troop of cub-scouts on an outing to the Cadburys factory. Any thought of going back to our desks had gone totally out of the window.

We joined a throng of people and jogged and jostled our way down to the 15th green where the cries of “Booooo” told us the US team’s talisman was approaching. We got there just in time to see him fire an incredible shot from out of the fairway bunker in to about two feet. The cheer that greeted the ball’s arrival was phenomenal. We waited there until Garcia and Casey arrived then followed them to the 17th green. There we found a media stand from where we could also see a TV screen. This was where we stayed to watch the remainder of the action.

I can sometimes be a little cynical, some may even say dour, but even I was totally caught up in the electric excitement sparking and crackling around that green. By the time play had finished Neil and I had to sit down in the bleachers for a while to regain our composure.

This is a fabulous course for spectators – particularly on the back nine. Every hole is banked by huge slopes meaning you can see pretty much all of the action, no matter how many people are standing in front of you. It all adds to the incredible atmosphere.

As a journalist I should try to give both sides of a story but I simply can’t think of anything negative to say about the experience of being at this Ryder Cup. Maybe Neil can……

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