How bad is the tension? many people have asked. What is it really like on the first tee, on the first morning of a Ryder Cup, with 30,000 loyal fans expecting Europe to retain the prized gold trophy? I should know because luckily I was there, however not in the capacity Id hoped. To explain, lets rewind six months or so.
Stood on the 4th tee at the TCL Classic on Hainen Island in China I said to my caddie, Mick Doran, how much I was looking forward to playing in the Ryder Cup again. Leading the qualifying table, I was already imagining what it would be like to tee off on that first morning. The next two days I shot 64, 63 and felt on top of my game. There is, however, an old golfing proverb that says, when youre playing well you cant imagine playing badly, and when youre playing badly you cant imagine playing well.
Six months is a long time in golf, and I was worryingly out of form when I arrived at the K Club.
I was on the tee that autumn morning to experience the intense atmosphere that only a Ryder Cup can conjure up, however with a pocket radio in my hand instead of a golf club. It was Thursday morning when myself, Paul McGinley, Luke Donald and Henrik Stenson were told that we would not be playing in the mornings fourballs. You could have heard a pin drop such was the deflation. Still, that is in some ways the beauty of the Ryder Cup. Each session the captain has to leave out four players, which is a horrible task and the players have to take it on the chin.
As the clock ticked nearer to 8am, the American Captain, Tom Lehmen, led Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk onto the tee. The crowd cheered so loudly Lehman assumed the Europeans were directly behind them, giving a glance back him only to see that no one was there. The real cheer came two minutes later when Monty and Harrington emerged onto the tee. Now that is one cheer I will never forget.
The next five minutes is unlike any other start of a sporting event. The pressure is like the last hole of a Major tournament and its why we all want to be in that position but when youre there, sometimes you wonder why. Ivor Robson, the official starter, made his first gaff in 20 years such was the occasion, and Tiger hit his worst opening drive you are ever likely to see. And so the 2006 Ryder Cup was on its way.
My morning was then spent watching some of the action and on the range with my coach Clive Tucker, desperately trying to patch up my swing and my fragile confidence. I knew I was to play with Henrik Stenson in the afternoon foursomes – a slightly surprising partnership to many eyes, but one I was extremely happy about. Henrik is ice cool, hits it miles and is a good friend.
One up through 10 we were going well against Cink and Toms, and my swing had held up well. Things started to go wrong for me on the back nine but we were still all square on the 16th. To my dismay Henrik hit the longest drive I have ever seen – fully 50 yards past David Toms effort. Now, you may wonder why I say to my dismay, and to explain you need to understand what lay in front of me, and more importantly what had just happened behind.
The 16th at the K Club is the signature hole, a reachable par five with the green perched just the other side of the River Liffey. Five thousand supporters lined the fairway, millions were watching on TV and with Henrik having hit his longest-ever drive I was left with only 188 yards to the pin. Ordinarily this would have been great, however we were playing foursomes and I had only hit three full shots in the last hour. The first of which was the best of the three, a drive went forty yards to the right. The following two got progressively worse!
As we waited for the green to clear, there was plenty of conversation between myself, Henrik and our two caddies. Whatever it was we were talking was about, it certainly wasnt what we were all thinking. A part of me was thinking, Henrik, why on earth did you not hit the drive into the rough so that I could lay up and you can pitch to the green.” I knew the two caddies and Henrik were thinking the same. Even worse was that I knew that they knew what I was thinking.
Somehow my 5-iron finished 10 yards left of the green. Henrik and the caddies patted me on the back as if I had hit it to 2ft. The most nerve-wracking 5-iron shot of my life had not done us any damage and a birdie four was made to keep the match all square.
Half an hour later we halved a great match, Henrik had his first Ryder Cup half point and Europe were on their way to a first day lead. I was delighted to bring half a point to the total, especially as our captain had shown great faith in me knowing that I was clearly not in any sort of form. In fact, I think it was an inspired choice to play me in the foursomes and not the fourballs.
I ended the week with two and a half points from three matches, witnessed Paul Caseys hole-in-one first hand and crowd surfed in the tented village! Its amazing how things can turn out when you keep an open mind. I would always prefer to be in top form at a Ryder Cup, but I can tell you from experience, it is great for the character, having to perform when your game is dodgy at best.
The whole week really was quite unbelievable for team Europe. Irish eyes seemed to be smiling on us all the time and the added emotion around Darren Clarke just seemed to intensify everything; it really was a truly remarkable atmosphere to play golf in.
My personal highlight would have to be the 12ft birdie putt I holed on the 14th green to win my singles match. This putt guaranteed a European victory and although it was never really in doubt at that stage, it was still a really sweet moment. When youre a budding young golfer you dream of playing in the Ryder Cup, but that week in Ireland was better than a dream, it really did happen. I was there and I will never forget it.