There are signature events in sports that come with great fanfare and history. In football, there’s the Super Bowl. Baseball has the World Series. Hockey’s champion is crowned in the Stanley Cup playoffs and, as local fans recently got to experience, there’s the NBA Finals for the elite in professional basketball.
The golf world offers the Ryder Cup, a one-of-a-kind spectacle that transforms a sport normally focused on individual performance to a team format that features top golfers from the United States and Europe.
Wisconsin golf fans will get the chance to see what all the hype surrounding the Ryder Cup is all about when golf’s signature worldwide event comes to the state for the first time this week. Teams from the United States and Europe will square off on the stunning layout at Whistling Straits in rural Sheboygan County.
What can fans attending their first Ryder Cup expect when they trek to the links-style course on the shore of Lake Michigan?
Golf professionals with ties to Wisconsin excitedly shared their stories about attending the Ryder Cup in person, on U.S. soil and in Europe.
“It’s the Super Bowl, the NBA playoffs and a major golf championship all rolled into one,” PGA of America President Jim Richerson said. “You cheer for your country, and you cheer for your team, which is unlike any other golf event. From a fan experience, not only do I believe that it’s the greatest golf event, I believe it’s one of the greatest sporting events, period. There’s the specialness of the team concept and the fact that there is so much history in the Ryder Cup. It makes for a very, very unique golf experience.”
The team aspect especially elevates the Ryder Cup to a level far different from any other golf championship, said Richerson, who became the first Wisconsin PGA member to be elected as a national PGA officer.
“You really feel that electricity because you have this whole group of people that is cheering for one team versus having tens of thousands of people on a golf course picking little pockets and cheering for one player or another,” he said.
Richerson, former Wisconsin PGA section president who spent more than a decade as general manager of golf at Kohler Co., whose properties include Whistling Straits, said Wisconsin’s rabid sports fans are sure to embrace the Ryder Cup’s unique atmosphere.
“You have a certain kind of electricity that you just don’t see at other golf events, even major championships,” he said. “As big as some of the events have been, the Ryder Cup just takes it to another level. You know the sports fans in Wisconsin are some of the best. It’s going to be unique. I’m sure they are really going to be cheering on the home country.”
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the U.S captain is beloved Wisconsin native Steve Stricker, Richerson said.
“He has represented the state and golf in Wisconsin so well throughout his entire career,” Richerson said. “Nobody on that team wants to lose the Ryder Cup and nobody wants to lose with Steve being the captain in his home state.”
The U.S. team will also be relying on the home-course advantage to help it recapture the Ryder Cup, which it lost at Le Golf National in Paris in 2018.
“Players really want to get that cup back,” he said.
This will mark the seventh Ryder Cup that Richerson has witnessed in person. Three have been overseas, including Paris.
The host country team gets the benefit of having a rabid home crowd behind it, which should help in the quest to recapture the cup, he said.
“From a spectator standpoint, it’s a lot like a home game in other sports. You have home field advantage because the crowd is heavily weighted in your favor,” Richerson said. “There will be European fans at Whistling Straits and family members of the European team, but it will be very much weighted in favor of the U.S.”
The ability of the host country captain to set up the course, to whatever extent possible, to benefit the style of play of his golfers also offers a potential advantage.
“In Paris, they made it very tight. They really brought the fairways in and grew the rough more,” Richerson said. “This time, Steve has set the golf course up to give the U.S. team a little bit of an advantage.”
Golfers embrace the overall Ryder Cup atmosphere and know how special it is to be named to the respective 12-member teams, Richerson said.
“They love it because it’s so unique,” he said. “It’s every two years and you are playing for your country.”
Golfers and spectators alike are always quick to mention the bedlam that takes place on the first tee.
“That first tee experience is something that is so unique to the Ryder Cup that you don’t get at any other golf championship,” Richerson said. “There is so much electricity. You see spectators in wild hats, jerseys and face paint. It gets the teams and their fans excited.”
Leading the charge are the American Marshals, a group formed to support the U.S. Ryder Cup team at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2008. Group members wear festive outfits while loudly singing and chanting to support the golfers.
“I have seen golfers that may not be playing a match that day make their way up into the bleachers and sit with that group and sing along and chant with them,” Richerson said.
The first tee excitement can cause anxiety for some golfers, particularly those without Ryder Cup experience.
“Over the years, we’ve heard stories of some players talking about how they almost couldn’t get their tees into the ground because they were so nervous,” Richerson said.
U.S. Captain Stricker is a veteran of three Ryder Cup championships and has first-hand experience of the pressure that comes with teeing up the ball on the first hole.
“There is no first tee experience like the Ryder Cup,” Stricker said during a recent press conference at Whistling Straits. “People show up early. They are loud and boisterous. They are full of passion and energy. You have to be prepared for that. It can be overwhelming and daunting. I think these guys will embrace it. They’ll enjoy it and relish it.”
Stricker knows how passionate Wisconsin golf fans are, having been the focus of their attention and adoration throughout his career. He expects the fans to show that sort of zeal and more during the Ryder Cup championship.
“There’s nothing better than Wisconsin sports fans. They come out in full force,” he said. “But I also understand that there are tickets from all 50 states, so we will have a huge representation across our country, which is very cool to see.”
For the golfers that make up their respective teams, the Ryder Cup is about playing for the pride of your country, not a financial reward, Richerson said.
“You’re not playing for a purse. You’re not playing for millions of dollars,” he said. “They all just want to win and represent their country. The players all talk about how it’s the most nervous they’ve ever been. The most pressure that they’ve had. It’s a different kind of pressure than even a major championship. If you miss a putt, it’s on you when you’re playing in a major tournament. It might cost you tens of thousands of dollars but if you miss a putt at the Ryder Cup you are letting down your partner, your team, the captain. There’s just another level of what goes into being a player on a Ryder Cup team.”
Bill Graham, Wisconsin PGA Section past president and head golf professional at Chenequa Country Club in Hartland, attended Ryder Cup events at Valhalla and Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago in 2012.
He, too, stressed the uniqueness of the team atmosphere and the thrill that comes with watching the U.S. team compete on home soil and how much that differs from the spectator experience of most other golf tournaments.
“Normally, everybody is just rooting for good golf. If Rory (McIlroy) hits a great shot, we’ll all applaud that. If Tiger (Woods) hits a great shot, we’ll applaud that. We’re not really rooting against anyone we’re just looking for good golf. You don’t really know who’s for who, there’s just a bunch of people there watching a golf tournament.”
That’ll all change at Whistling Straits.
“At the Ryder Cup, you are shoulder to shoulder with everyone who is pulling in the same direction,” he said. “You are just surrounded by fans who are chanting ‘USA, USA.’ You really get this really unique thrill of all for one more so much more than in any other sporting event I’ve ever been to.”
The Ryder Cup also has its own unique “sound,” Graham said.
“There’s that sound. If you are six holes ahead of a particular match, you’ll hear that sound behind you. You’ll know what it means, immediately,” Graham said. “You have absolutely no idea what that means at the Wells Fargo (Championship). But you sure do know what it means at the Ryder Cup.”
Traditionally, golfers expect fans to be mostly quiet during tournament play. Not so for the Ryder Cup.
“It’s not about being quiet. Golfers are asking for the noise,” Graham said. “You never see that on a tour event, never.”
Graham has especially fond memories of the Ryder Cup at Valhalla, where the U.S. ended the streak of three successive victories for Europe.
“It was this goosebump feeling. You felt it coming,” he said.
Dirk Willis, vice president of global golf, retail and landscape at the Kohler Co., has attended two domestic Ryder Cups, at Medinah and Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. He also attended the Paris Ryder Cup.
He likened the Ryder Cup atmosphere on U.S. soil to that of a heated college football rivalry.
“In a normal golf environment, people are rooting for their own individual guys,” Willis said. “Here you have one side against the other and it’s as much about fan participation as it is about what’s happening on the course. There is a lot of back and forth and chants between the fan bases. There’s a lot of revelry and costumes. It literally looks like and feels like you are tailgating at a college football game.”
The atmosphere is similar in Europe, but with more of a World Cup soccer feel, he said.
The boisterous, flag-waving crowds create an atmosphere not normally found in golf. Most of the golfers embrace that and feed off it, Willis said.
“You get a lot of players that are very vocal,” he said. “You’ve had Ian Poulter on the European side and Patrick Reed on the American side who have become symbols of that. For the most part, the golfers get amped up and interact with their fan bases. Some of the fans will get a little out of line as far as being too vocal at the wrong times, but for the most part it adds to the fire of the event and the competition.”
Fans are certain to be even more amped after having to wait an extra year for the Ryder Cup due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Willis said.
“Judging from what I’ve seen at the U.S. Open and other tournaments this year, you can just sense the excitement of the fans being out on the course again,” Willis said. “They are little more vocal than in the past. Golf is more popular than ever coming out of the pandemic. People want to get out and release some pent-up energy. I expect it to be as exciting from a fan standpoint as any Ryder Cup we’ve ever seen.”