The Ryder Cup is no place for the faint of heart, and this year the opening shot at the Twenty Ten Club at Celtic Manor Resort in Wales is expected to set a new standard for first-tee jitters.
Massive bleachers surrounding the first tee will seat more than 2,000 spectators and will give participants an arena-like setting, adding more tension to an already thick atmosphere. Wales will host the event for the first time. And Europeans are frothing at the prospect of regaining the Cup that America regained in 2008 at Valhalla. Expect more Lambeau Field than Loch Lomond.
"It's always a nerve-wracking experience and a little scary at first, but it's a privilege and an honor to be able to experience that," said Duluth's Stewart Cink, who will play in his fifth Ryder Cup matches.
Perhaps the added intensity is why American captain Corey Pavin designed his pairings for the Friday morning four-ball matches as he did. He put the veteran Cink alongside Ryder Cup rookie Matt Kuchar, teaming a pair of Georgia Tech players against U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy in the second match of the day.
"I just hope to play well," Kuchar said. "The Ryder Cup is such a big event. It's like a major. You want to be peaked for it, and you want to be playing well, and you want to help your team out anyway you can. I think that's just a matter of the chips fall your way."
Pavin helped ease Kuchar into the scene by teaming him with Cink, an old friend with whom he has played many times. The two practiced together earlier this week in Wales, being in the same pod with Jim Furyk and Jeff Overton.
Two of the U.S. four-ball teams aren't likely to get rattled. Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods won four matches together at the 2009 Presidents Cup, and Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson have become good friends and are kindred spirits. The other pairing was a surprise, with Overton and Georgia graduate Bubba Watson going out in the final match of the morning.
Stricker's first Ryder Cup experience came in 2008 at Valhalla, but he expects an electric atmosphere in Wales. Being paired with Woods against Lee Westwood and PGA Champion Martin Kaymer will add to the drama.
"I imagine it's going to be something that I have never experienced," Stricker said last week at The Tour Championship. "I mean, it's not going to be pro-USA, so we've got to get ready for that, and it's going to be a tough situation, I think."
Some of the biggest names in golf have felt the pressure on the first tee. David Toms said his hands literally were shaking. Raymond Floyd said he could barely stick a tee in the ground. Padraig Harrington said his nerves were so bad that he couldn't see the golf ball. Jose Maria Olazabal said anyone who doesn't have wobbly legs on the first tee must be dead.
Nerves could play a special part this week for the Americans, who have five Ryder Cup rookies: Kuchar, Overton, Watson, Johnson and Rickie Fowler. Watson, runner-up at the PGA Championship, said his focus will be to hit his first drive in the fairway.
"You know, it's golf," Watson said. "The grandstands are going to be there; there's going to be a lot of people out there. It's going to be different, and people are screaming. It's going to be fun, but it's going to nerve-wracking."
But Watson said the pressure on the first tee will seem small compared with the scene on the 18th green, if the match goes the distance.
"So the first hole is going to be a lot easier than the 18th hole," Watson said. "The first hole, I'm only 1 down after one if I choke or slice a tee shot. One-down after 18 is going to hurt worse than 1-down after No. 1."