Fans from La Crosse, Wis.; Yorkshire, England, and Scottsdale, Ariz., rose before a misty dawn Friday to line up by 5 a.m., hoping to win a spot at the first tee at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska.
The Ryder Cup competitors from the United States and Europe wouldn’t walk across the pedestrian bridge from the practice range until the start of the first group at 7:35 a.m.
The club gates officially opened at 6:35 a.m., but 33-year-old twin sisters Kristie McKesson of Chaska and Ali Van Dalen of La Crosse managed to get in sooner.
“We were in the box and freezing at 5 a.m.,” McKesson said.
McKesson and her sister had left their infant children at home, along with a house full of some 30 relatives in town for the event. Her modest home was so crowded that she had her baby sleeping in a closet, her toddler on the floor and another sister on the bed with her and her husband, she said.
An estimated 20,000 spectators were in place for the first strike off the tee. The crowd grew noticeably to an estimated 51,000 by midday as the foggy morning sky slowly cleared into a brilliant day, with the temperature pushing 70 degrees. The Golf Channel said the crowd was the biggest in Ryder Cup history.
Conversations across the pathways throughout the course came in many languages, including German, French, Danish and English with a British accent. Even though Tiger Woods wasn’t playing, his name could be overheard all day, with fans eager for a sighting.
The event is unusual for golf because it’s team play — the best players in the United States against the best from Europe. Fans choose sides, but it’s all in rowdy, good-natured fun. Even amid the biggest swarms of people, politesse rather than pushiness carries the day.
To get to Chaska, fans all over the Twin Cities rose as early as 3:30 a.m., many dressing head to toe in red, white and blue, stars and stripes, or the blue with yellow stars of the European Union flag. The flamboyantly attired received kudos and requests to pose for photos from other spectators.
One group sporting eye-catching attire came from Yorkshire, England. The three pals with blue knickers covered in yellow stars, matching caps and yellow shirts had been out enjoying Minneapolis bars until 1 a.m. They got up two hours later to get to Hazeltine.
One of them, James Atkinson, said they landed about 20th in line at the gate. Then, 90 minutes later, they sprinted to the bleachers, grabbing prime second-row seats at the first tee. After the foursomes had all taken off for the morning rounds, he was among the throngs seeking sustenance after a long morning.
“I love golf; it was definitely worth it,” Atkinson said.
Sisters Deb and Sharon Syverson, both from St. Louis Park, came at tee time decked out in Ryder Cup and U.S. regalia. They had tickets for every day. “We’re huge golf fans, and it’s in our backyard; how can you not be here?” Deb Syverson asked.
Both wore official jackets from the Medinah, Ill., event four years ago. “We normally have a drink in our hand, but it’s too early,” Sharon said.
They planned to chase the action and the crowds. “We love all the banter that goes back and forth,” she said.
They sported buttons that had been handed out at the arrival gate. “I’m a member of Arnie’s Army,” they read, in tribute to golf legend Arnold Palmer, who died this week.
Palmer’s presence was felt throughout the club. Fans used Sharpies to fill two huge images of the King with memories and good wishes. Flags on the course were at half-staff.
Drinks in the morning
For all the noise, the fans know their golf protocol. With thousands gathered at the first tee, the fairway crowd went still and silent as each golfer teed off.
Bloody Marys and 32-ounce cans of Budweiser appeared to be the drinks of choice, but French vineyard Mouton Cadet also created a unique blend for the event.
From a table on the second floor of the Captain’s Club hospitality tent overlooking the first green, Hugues Lechanoine, managing director of the parent company of Mouton Cadet, described the wine as a fruity, pleasant blend heavy on merlot, with some cabernet. The label has a strong tie to the course, he said.
The image on the bottle was lifted from a painting by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the son and namesake of the man who designed the course. The painting he created showed him serving as caddie to his father on the “death or glory” hole at Hazeltine. For the tournament, that’s the seventh hole, although it’s usually the 16th.
Jones and Lechanoine say the word “caddie” came from the French word “cadet,” thus the wine also has a connection to golf.
Out on the course, a group of buddies who graduated from Arizona State University 10 years ago stood out from the crowd. The crew wore pants or knickers that had one red and white leg and one blue leg. Excerpts from the U.S. Constitution were inscribed on both legs in white and red.
“For $135, they better be comfortable,” said Dustin Hall of Nashville, who wore the knickers version of the Loudmouth Golf brand pants.
The friends also had printed their own T-shirts reading “Arnie’s Army.”
“He’s just an amazing guy, so we’ve got to pay homage to that,” said Cory Lehrman of Denver. Lehrman is a Minnesota native, so he and his pals stayed with his mom in Minneapolis.
When the action at the first tee ended, fans streamed out of the bleachers, only to fill them up again a couple of hours later in anticipation of the afternoon round.