ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | On the first tee at a modern Ryder Cup and again at the Solheim Cup, there is music blaring and the equivalent of a DJ whipping up a noise among the spectators before the matches get under way. As many players as not want more of the same as they hit from the tee. They thrive on it.
Ahead of the opening foursomes at the centenary Walker Cup here at the Old Course, a 12-year-old bagpiper played a series of traditional airs before walking shyly from the tee. Then the silence took over, a silence which Old Tom Morris would have expected and which everyone else who has ever teed up here would know only too well.
The rising tension was everywhere apparent. One of the caddies was chewing his gum at a speed which he never could have kept up beyond the first hole; John Grant, the endlessly popular director of golf at the Links Trust and the starter for the occasion, was turning his head to check with the Rolex clock every other second. But bang on 8.30, play was underway, with each of the shots that followed good enough to have their owners thanking their maker.
Austin Greaser, from the ranks of the Americans, had conceded to feeling first-tee jitters over the practice days. He kept thinking of all of the famous names who had played at St Andrews, from Arnold Palmer to Seve Ballesteros and, by way of an inadvertent secondary distraction, he kept looking round to see whether anyone was watching. Hardly surprising, it was much to his relief that he did not have to worry about those R&A members who normally would have been sitting and staring from their big room window. (The reason here is that those repairs and renewals to the clubhouse which started last year have yet to be finished.)
“The majority of people who play here are nervous,” said Dave, a St Andrews caddie who was fearful of giving his surname, presumably lest he contravene one of the caddies’ rules. “Hitting off the first tee is one thing, but it’s also about how much it means to everyone to be playing here at all. In most instances, they will have been thinking about the experience for months.”
Dave, who was not on Walker Cup duty, says the same thing to each of his bosses in turn. “I tell them they’ve got nothing to worry about, and that they’ve got all the room in the world.”
What were the worst of the tee shots he would see on a regular basis?
“Ones that never left the tee.”
Having delivered that piece of information, he felt compelled to mention a drive that probably was in a league of its own, one which set off from the 18th tee. It sailed far out of bounds on its way to the roundabout on the main road.
Mind you, Ian Poulter’s tee shot at the first was arguably up there with the best of the worst. In last year’s Open, Poulter hit a wicked hook in the direction of the houses fronting the 18th fairway and was only 2 yards removed from the out-of-bounds fencing.
“At the Open, they didn’t allow fans behind the first tee. Here, they’re packed to the right, to the left and behind the tee. That’s what makes it so awesome.”
John Gough, who was representing the Great Britain and Ireland team with Matthew McClean in the third of the Saturday foursomes, had seen it for himself.
“That’s the last thing I want to do when the gun goes,” he said. “On the other hand, it didn’t turn out to be that bad. He hit the green with his second.”
Gough, on the Friday, was also thinking about the crowd.
“The course has been feeling electric without a crowd, so heaven knows what we can expect over the weekend. It’s probably going to be massive.”
In the opinion of John Paisley, Gough’s caddie, it still was more impressive than that at last year’s Open.
The two captains, GB&I’s Stuart Wilson and the USA’s Mike McCoy, each had his own way of handling first-tee nerves. Wilson was inclined to deliver much the same good-luck message to his players in that they were all blessed with the same belief that they could win the match for GB&I for a first time since 2015.
McCoy, an amusing fellow who said there wasn’t a player in his team to whom he would refuse permission to marry one of his daughters, had a message per man.
“It gets easier as you get to know them,” he began. “You want to hit the right button each time. Some will react well to encouragement; others want to be challenged. I’m there [as captain] for a reason, and the psychology side of things is so important.”
In which connection, 32-year-old American Stewart Hagestad, a merchant banker in New York who hits balls in the basement of his office before catching the metro home, said it was a father-son trip to St Andrews 17 years ago which had made him feel so emotional this time around.
“I couldn’t put my finger on why it felt so special, but the more courses I played over the years, the more my appreciation grew,” he said. “What never ceases to strike me is how every course in the world owes something to St Andrews and its origins.”
Though Hagestad has been a member of three winning Walker Cup sides, he expected his nerves to kick in on Saturday, simply because he was where he was.
The mood for this splendid week was set in a delightful speech from USGA president Fred Perpall at the opening ceremony. Perpall said to this correspondent he had crossed out much of the original when, earlier in the day, he had disappeared to sit and think in a quiet corner at the 17th hole. When he left those revised notes on a shelf beneath the speaker’s lectern, GGP was prompted to take a peek at them.
“For everyone here,” he said on their delivery, “it’s admittedly difficult not to be a bit overcome by the emotion of this weekend. I encourage you to close your eyes for a moment, to enjoy the stillness of this beautiful evening. Think about the goodness that golf has brought us and the opportunity to share that goodness with each other …”
Sounds like the perfect thought for those lucky golfers who are pondering on their opening shot at this holy of holies.