PARIS — As dawn broke over Le Golf National, the grandstand behind the first tee was already long full. Marshals got the order at 6:45 a.m. local time to turn hopeful spectators away. You had to be up and queuing long before common sense dictated to get a seat in the 6,500-seat auditorium looking over the small patch of grass where nerves are broken in front of the sporting world.
Fans trampled every available blade of grass to get a peek at the first tee amid a sea of European blue-and-yellow flags. Songs broke out. Mentions of the American team were booed, and all the while, Ian Poulter conducted proceedings. The announcer had already, thankfully, shouted himself hoarse, thanks to far too frequent attempts at instigating noise.
If there was a quiet moment as the crowd waited for play to start — they were rarer than a mention of Brexit in these parts — Poulter stood on the first tee, turned to face the grandstand and opened his arms wide. The crowd hushed, preparing to instigate the thunderclap made famous by the Iceland football team. The crowd clapped in rhythm to the “Pied” Poulter’s commands. Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy would later take Poulter’s baton.
The spectators began to stream into this small corner of Paris the prior weekend, all decked out in paraphernalia from the previous 41 Ryder Cups, carrying flags, memories and hopes. They came from America and all corners of Europe to be part of the occasion. Each had views on what it means to be a fan this week — some treat it as a party, others as part of their annual golf circuit routine. Some think of it as a curiosity, others as tradition. And for some, it’s purely nationalistic grounds.
One fan, Mike Schmidt, was decked head to toe in stars and stripes — using part of a Halloween costume as his top — and spoke of how he loves everything about the team format and being able to support the U.S. in his favorite sport. This is his third Ryder Cup, and he is adamant fans must respect the opposition and honor the values of golf. There are limits when it comes to maximizing support.
This is the Ryder Cup where for every golf purist you could find another more casual fan who had already managed to guzzle a few pints — probably alternating beer from one hand to the other, while juggling a European flag and phone ready to take snaps of any recognizable face — prior to Friday’s first tee. The intake only increased throughout the day. Champagne corks littered the small patch of grass where you can see the 15th, 16th and 18th greens. Beers were thrown into the air as Tommy Fleetwood nailed his 30-foot putt. Gasps greeted Tony Finau‘s remarkable tee shot in which he caught a wooden pillar on the side of the green as the ball then bounced within a couple of feet. Then they booed as he lined up his birdie putt but then calmed, perhaps having had a word with themselves.
The Ryder Cup is a place where cultures and intentions clash. The late Bobby Jones in the “Conduct, Customs and Etiquette” guide to Augusta’s Masters wrote: “It is appropriate for spectators to applaud successful strokes in proportion to difficulty but excessive demonstrations by a player or his partisans are not proper because of the possible effect upon other competitors. Most distressing to those who love the game of golf is the applauding or cheering of misplays or misfortunes of a player.”
Those sentiments are still upheld by some here, but the Ryder Cup is about sporting drama, the fist pumps, the songs, the schadenfreude, the explosion of nationalistic pride and utilizing home advantage. When nationalistic cups overflow, then etiquette can be momentarily sidelined. But there is nothing offensive about the “Ole, Ole, Ole” chant or the odd shout of encouragement to a ball midflight.
The American Marshals — a group of 13 men who follow the U.S. Ryder Cup team home and away — started their brain-hammering chant of “I believe that we will win” far before the sun had risen. They have been here all week, singing songs about their players. Their European counterparts, the Ryder Cup Guardians, were a little quieter, stung by social media criticism over the past couple of weeks when they were told by some they were no longer needed — that their singing was excessive and spoiling the party.
They were sheepish when talking about it, slightly hurt by what was said, but they still have a songbook of 20 or so chants and songs for each European player and potential happenstance. They have been doing this since 2006. For pantomime villain Patrick Reed, they have up their sleeve: “We like foreplay, you like slow play.” It is a little different from the Marshals’ song for Jim Furyk, to the tune of “The Flintstones” theme song. “Furyk, meet Jim Furyk, he’s the captain of our team.” It was all kept cordial, unlike 2016.
At Hazeltine two years before, some fans overstepped the mark. Rory McIlroy had one fan ejected because of verbal abuse in his direction. Ian Poulter also had one thrown out for his abuse of Danny Willett. The PGA felt the need to apologize.
During the week, players were asked about the fans and their importance to Ryder Cups. Poulter is the chest-beating, fan-facing darling of the European fans. “Home fans, even the Americans will tell you as well, on home soil, there’s definitely a helping factor there,” Poulter said. “To get behind your team is a big part of trying to win that trophy.”
Tyrrell Hatton, a rookie, said the Ryder Cup crowd was similar to those in football. “It’s one set of fans, supporting their team. You want your team to win!”
Justin Rose spoke of a Ryder Cup crowd as a “sporting” one, rather than a “golfing” one. He touched on whether the French spectators — making up 40 percent of the ticket sales — with a lack of a homegrown player might be less vocal than what has been experienced in more traditional strongholds. Judging by the first tee, anyone with reservations about whether the French crowd would be a quieter than Gleneagles need to park those worries. “I would welcome an atmosphere that’s more of a sports crowd and a bit more raucous and a bit more as we face it in America,” Rose said. His demands were answered.
If there are two Americans that bind the European crowd together, it is their admiration for Tiger Woods — his ovation at the opening ceremony was remarkable — and their pantomime dislike of Reed. Reed said during the week there is nothing fans can do to “get under my skin,” and any attempts were largely futile. As he hit an approach shot Friday, one fan shouted “Get in the water,” at a hole where any water hazards were nonexistent. Another shouted, “Reed, you’re not good.” It’s hardly Oscar Wilde level of wit, especially when they are dressed as Bananaman, and short of the abuse former Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman had experienced in the past.
“If they start talking about your wife, take it in, let it churn around and spit it back out with birdies and eagles,” Lehman said.
Friday’s first session seemed to tread the right side of the respect-disrespectful divide. As the openers came through the last four holes, named the Loop of Doom, there were frayed nerves married with the smell of barbecues and beer floating on the midday breeze. Chants and cheers sprung up from various corners of the course. By that stage, two fans had already been hit by wayward tee shots.
The thunderclap still broke out sporadically, with the loudest cheer reserved for Fleetwood’s 30-foot putt on the 16th. Slightly quieter cries of triumph answered America’s efforts as they turned the scoreboard red.
At the break, the Europeans looked for a savior. With the greens barely recovered from the morning’s play, and the queues for the toilets lengthening by the awkward jog, Poulter stood on the first tee alongside McIlroy. The full grandstand roared again as the foursomes started. The sun was beating on a slightly more raucous crowd than seven hours previous as they again sang their songs, standing arm in arm, savoring the atmosphere. The fans had already made their mark on the Ryder Cup. Vocal cords were already strained and it was just the first session. Poulter hadn’t even hit a ball yet but the crowd had already answered his call to be the 13th man.