Amped up crowds will be bringing the noise to Whistling Straits this week at the Ryder Cup. In the past that din hasn’t always been a pleasant cacophony – the last time the biennial event was held on US shores Europe’s Rory McIlroy was jeered about ex-girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki.
Things can get very personal at the Ryder Cup.
The atmosphere was teetering on going from boisterous to distasteful for Spanish pair Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera-Bello were it not for Garcia’s then girlfriend Angela, who politely asked hecklers to stop yelling “horrible things” to the away team and their spouses at Hazeltine in 2016.
“I understand cheering for your team but let’s leave the insults out,” she told CNN the day after her husband, the Ryder Cup’s highest points scorer with 25½, was given a wildcard to represent Europe for a 10th time.
“I said to them: ‘I’m here supporting the European team, I’m an American, and you’re embarrassing me.’ The people around us joined in and said: ‘Yeah, you’re embarrassing us too!’
“So I said to the guys I want to see American fans being better than that, and they said ok, then later on they saw me, they’d figured out who I was, and they came over and gave me a hug and apologized. I think there were four of them, we all hugged and it was all good.”
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‘There’s more heckling now’
Six-time Ryder Cup caddie Fanny Sunesson, the first female to carry the bag for a male major winner in 1990 with Englishman Nick Faldo, told CNN how 30 years ago at Kiawah Island – which became known as the “War on the Shore” – things got so heated the 1993 captains Tom Watson and Bernard Gallacher (who skippered Europe three straight times from 1991-95) had to take the temperature down a few notches.
“I think there’s more heckling now, although I’ve not been at the Ryder Cup the past few years. I’ve only seen it, which is different. At Kiawah it got too much. The two captains the following time quietened it down.
“It should be about sportsmanship, it’s not a war. It’s a game.
“When the crowd is cheering however, that’s brilliant. It’s something special. Most of the spectators are great.”
Perhaps the finest example of this – even if Faldo in the commentary booth didn’t quite approve – is Bubba Watson and Ian Poulter teeing off at the 2012 Ryder Cup in Chicago with the crowds cheering at full volume, both players asking for it and welcoming the wall of noise.
The roars, the fist pumps, the enormous grandstands and the swelling crowds encircling each green make the Ryder Cup such a unique event. And in a sport that focuses on individuality, it’s a novel break from the sponsors and the dollar bills.
You might not recognize McIlroy, who often plays without a cap. In 2018, debutant Tommy Fleetwood – and his famous long hair – crowd surfed like a rockstar.
Garcia and Sunesson repeated time after time the word “team” when describing the role of a spouse and caddie in a week like no other.
“I have no bad memories of the Ryder Cup, it’s such a cool, team event,” said Sunesson, who now mixes her time commentating for Swedish TV, coaching and giving talks.
“It’s such a tiring event, you often do 36 holes a day, but you don’t mind. If you did that several weeks in a row you’d be totally exhausted. But it’s so special.
“It’s like one big team where you help each other. It speaks volumes when players who don’t make it and have played it want to go as vice-captains or even as helpers.”
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‘It’s something special’
Sunesson referenced Bubba Watson’s near-miss to qualify in 2016 which prompted his emotional appointment as a vice-captain while Garcia, a former sports journalist who used to play golf off scratch, has attended the Super Bowl, NBA finals and Champions League final but wouldn’t miss golf’s ultimate party for the world.
“I think about the Ryder Cup quite often actually. It’s my favorite sporting event by far: it’s something special.
“Monday when we arrive there’s a lot of hugs and jokes and smiles and laughter. Every night we have dinner together, then the guys head off to practice and it gives the girls, the wives, the partners a chance to hang out together, we’re all so close.
“We have a group text from 2016 and 2018 that we still use too, and there’s a new one now. It’s a place where we keep up with each other’s lives, we celebrate victories of our spouses and others, we celebrate new babies, our friendship is amazing.”
Garcia said what made the competition – which was first contested between USA and Great Britain in 1927 – stand out was actually the inclusion of so many family members.
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“If you’re playing for the New York Liberty at the WNBA finals or the Superbowl, you maybe don’t want to have an outside distraction or family around. And that’s what makes the Ryder Cup so special, that the spouses and partners form a part of one big team.
“The Ryder Cup is a big deal, it’s a big event, they want to win, and if they didn’t think that having us around was of value, we wouldn’t be there.”
Where articles and suggestions in the past have debated the presence of the wives at the opening ceremony – to some an anachronistic tradition which has no place in 2021 as society strives towards equality and the reinforcement of positive gender stereotypes – Garcia said she felt included, respected, valued and above all equal when she takes to the stage.
“I view it as women are a part of the opening ceremony. It’s the Ryder Cup and men play, it’s not the Solheim Cup, but they include us in the opening ceremony.
“We walk in as a team of spouses and partners and we leave as equals. I strongly believe in women’s rights and I’ve never gotten that feeling which makes me happy. If I did I wouldn’t necessarily want to be a part of it.”
Bullying and chauvinism
Going back to 1986 when Sunesson was first offered a male player’s bag to caddie for, even then she had no issues.
The day Brazilian Jaime Gonzalez chose her to caddie for him, as she stood in line with Annika and Charlotta Sorenstam, they weren’t picked until the end but the then 19-year-old Sunesson never looked back as she went on to caddie for Jose Rivero, Anders Forsbrand and Howard Clark before Faldo, her first experience of the Ryder Cup coming at the Belfry in 1989.
“It was almost like I didn’t start caddying because I was a girl, but for Jaime it was either have no caddie or have me,” she said.
“He chose to have me which was good. He was a cool character.”
From tackling hecklers to bullies and standing up for women’s rights, mom of two Garcia is on a “mission” to spread good not only on the golf course but off it too.
“As a TV host I’ve suffered bad bullying and some chauvinism in my life that I didn’t enjoy,” said the 35-year-old, who launches her own foundation – UGLI – in October to coincide with US national anti-bullying awareness month.
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“I took the word UGLY and changed it to UGLI: Unique, Gifted, Loved, Individual. Our mission is literally to end bullying forever.
“We have to stop using our phones and computers as a shield to say whatever we want. We can’t treat people like the piece of gum we just stepped on walking down the road.
“I’m excited to do some good and change this world and make it a better place. Especially after having children, and Sergio feels the same, I can’t live in a world where people are so cruel to each other and people of all ages are taking their lives because of something somebody said to them on social media. I have to do something about it.”