Imagine stepping onto the first tee box while carrying the weight of your country on your shoulders. Instead of quiet fans holding their breath during your practice swings, thousands of spectators are stomping their feet and chanting your name. After ripping your first shot through the fog and down the center of the first fairway, you hand your driver to your caddy and turn to face a crowd howling at the top of its lungs.
If this doesn’t seem like your average golf tournament it’s because it’s not ““ it’s the Ryder Cup.
Just over a week ago, UCLA men’s golf coach Derek Freeman flew across the Atlantic to the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales in order to witness this year’s clash of the continents in person.
Although the Americans lost on the final day by a single point, Freeman wasn’t terribly concerned about the result.
“(The fan support) is much more special. I relate it to a football game where you have fans from both sides,” Freeman said.
“That’s really the feeling that you got; it’s not just another golf tournament where you have fans cheering for everybody.
“Imagine hitting a golf ball out of the Rose Bowl and having all those people cheer for you. That’s what it’s like.”
The Ryder Cup is considered by many to be the pinnacle of elite golf competition. Started in 1927 by Samuel Ryder, the biennial tournament pits the best golfers in the United States against the best golfers in Europe. Instead of the PGA Tour’s traditional stroke play, golfers compete in a combination of team and individual match play events, turning a predominantly individual sport into a three-day team shoot-out.
Because of its unique format and intense competition ““ the word “rivalry” being an understatement ““ the Ryder Cup has become a tournament nearly every golfer dreams of playing in. Pontus Widegren, a sophomore on the UCLA men’s golf team, is no different.
“For me growing up in Europe, the Ryder Cup is the biggest thing you can ever play in,” said Widegren, who was born and raised in Sweden. “That’s my ultimate goal, to represent Europe in the Ryder Cup … it’s just the coolest thing you can do.”
Following that logic, Corey Pavin must be the coolest person in the United States. Pavin, who played on the UCLA men’s golf team from 1978-1982, was team USA’s captain in this year’s tournament.
It was his relationship with Freeman that convinced Freeman to travel more than 5,400 miles to witness one weekend of wet and windy golf.
“Knowing that (Pavin) supports our golf program, I wanted to support him and his captainship and be a part of it,” Freeman said. “He always wants to do everything he can to help the team and spend time with the team. He’s a positive influence; he’s great to have as a role model for our guys.”
While Freeman kept a blog about his trip on the UCLA men’s golf website, he also took the time to convey his experiences to his players. He gave them more than just pointers about spending 30 minutes reading greens during six-hour practice rounds, though.
Freeman gave them a challenge, a goal to play for. He wants to see them play in the Ryder Cup one day, because he believes they have the skill to make it there.
“He was really trying to relay the things that he felt to us because we can be there,” said Connor Driscoll, the lone senior on the UCLA men’s golf team. “He was trying to relay how excited about golf in general it made him and how much he wants us to be there at some point in our careers to experience that, to be on the team.”
Speaking of practice rounds, the UCLA men’s golf team may have plans to host a couple of Bruin Ryder Cups themselves. With two European players already on the team ““ Widegren from Sweden and sophomore Pedro Figueiredo from Portugal ““ the potential for an intersquad match play competition exists.
“If we had a few more Europeans we could do that,” Freeman said.
“But we will definitely have some intersquad matches for sure: Europe v. America.”
For Freeman, his experience abroad is sure to be one that he carries with him for the rest of his life. Amid the chants, the Tiger-Woods-esque fist pumps, the monster drives and team USA’s near comeback on the final day, there was something else that stood out to Freeman.
“It was all fun and that’s what it’s all about,” Freeman said. “That’s the great thing about the Ryder Cup and what it is as a match, and we love that.”