I've been lucky enough to go to some of the great golf events over the years. I pretty much made the trip to the Open every year as a teenager and many times since, I have done all four days at Augusta, I once found myself in Pebble Beach while a US Open was on by chance. But until recently I had never been to the Ryder Cup.
Well, that changed in style. Four years ago I travelled with a friend for 4 wonderful days in Chicago for the Miracle of Medinah and then last time went closer to home for the Glory of Gleneagles (or whatever we called it). I'm incredibly jealous of those European fans heading to Minnesota this week for the Happiness/Horror of Hazeltine. - they're in for a treat.
In case you don't want to read on I'll nail my colours firmly to the mast now. As a spectator on the course Medinah was phenomenal, Gleneagles was just fine. Now of course the drama on the last day helped, but Medinah crackled for all 3 days. Gleneagles, well it happened, and Europe won - but it just didn't give the memories of Medinah and I think the European Tour have a part to play in that.
THE VIEWING EXPERIENCE
I am far from alone in not being a lover of the PGA Centenary Course. But before Gleneagles I had been swayed by the argument that the course doesn't matter in the Ryder Cup, it's all about the matches. The only problem was that as a spectator it was virtually impossible to follow a match around. The routing didn't easily flow from hole to hole, the walks between them were impractical and you simply couldn't see every shot. Nicklaus has created a pretty rotten golf course on a great piece of land. There is not bobbing between holes possible where you can keep an eye on a few matches at a time. Just forget it.
Medinah on the other hand was a joy. You could walk the course easily and there were many great spots where you could see couple of holes and a tee shot and be able to follow the ebb and flow of a few games. Sure, it didn't have the 'amphitheatres' of Gleneagles but you could buy a periscope from Phil Mickelson's dad in the exhibition tent (I kid you not) and see everything.
There was a great spot at Medinah, just behind the par 4 16th green. After the players had putted out you could nip to the par 3 17th tee and watch them tee off before going back to the 16th to watch the next group come through and then watching the action from the 17th green. From there I watched Poulter's comeback on Saturday as well as Donald and Garcia take down of Woods and Stricker as well as 'that' Justin Rose putt on Sunday.
Chicago isn't really a golfing Mecca. Sure, there are some great courses in the area but the fans probably aren't the most knowledgeable in the golfing world. What they tended to do as soon as the gates opened was go to one of the big grandstands and then sit there for the session which meant there was more space for 'walkers' on the course. While they may not have been the most knowledgeable fans they were pretty loud (although predominantly with the shout 'USA' which got a bit wearing) when things were going well for the US and amazingly quiet on the Sunday.
There have been suggestions by some (Paul Lawrie amongst them) that the local fans may have overstepped the mark at times. I never saw that at all - and I followed him around for a few holes on the Sunday.
There was something very very special about being a European fan on American soil, both when the pressure was on and when then the comeback came. There may have only been a couple of thousand of us but the support was phenomenal.
There were some obvious problems in Gleneagles. It was pretty cold, the audience was predominantly middle aged male Scots and you couldn't really follow any matches around. That meant that even when Europe were doing great stuff it never really caught fire.
I took my young son on the Saturday and I don't think he saw another child there the whole day. The tickets were expensive and that created a pretty staid audience. The US contingent of fans there had none of the exuberance of the Europeans in Medinah. It was all just a bit flat compared to what I had seen 2 years before.
GETTING CLOSE TO THE ACTION
I think you know what is coming. At Medinah you felt like you were walking in the steps of you heroes. You could get close to the players and their coaches/families - often exchanging words and there was a real sense of you were part of the action. When Poulter holed out on 16 on the Saturday I remember him turning and staring what felt right at me and letting out a massive roar. Other members of the European team were standing next to us to one side with the Americans to the other. I hadn't been camping out at the spot for hours, rather following around as any fan could.
One of the bad things about Gleneagles viewing was that there were a phenomenal amount of hangers on standing in front of the ticket paying audience. There were over a hundred people inside the ropes which was an absolute farce. The European Tour have let that get ridiculously out of hand and it needs to be stopped for Paris. Why on earth I had to find a better spot to watch when Peter Jones from Dragon's Den and Brian from Westlife stood right in front of me I will never know!
The on course coverage was brilliant in Medinah. You could buy a little radio and listen to the BBC 5 Live commentary while walking to the course, or flick over to the US TV audio feed. It was quite telling that even the US fans were listening to Ian Carter et al, such was the quality of their coverage. Again, it just added to the atmosphere on the course and let you feel part of the action. Of course, in Gleneagles you could listen to the radio station of your choice and there were plenty of big screens keeping you informed as to what was going on at all times too.
The toilets at Medinah were hideous and the food turgid. Gleneagles beat both hands down! It was expensive, for sure, but there was plenty out there. Having said that, Gleneagles felt like you were in the middle of a giant scale corporate event that had been planned on a grand scale. It felt overblown and too stage managed. In Medinah you felt like you were walking around a golf course enjoying the Ryder Cup.
So, there you go. I hope that Hazeltine offers some of the same great opportunities to fans that Medinah did and doesn't take too many leaves from Gleneagles' book. If it does then there will be some amazing memories for fans of both sides to savour in a way you just can't get on the TV. And I hope the European Tour pause for thought about what it feels like to be a fan at the European events when they set out there future venues, although I'm not sure the money involved will let that happen