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'Nowhere to hide' from Ryder Cup pressure
Posted 9/26/2012 8:35 PM ET

MEDINAH, Ill. -- Luke Donald was a rock.

Warming up on the range at Oakland Hills Country Club north of Detroit, the Englishman's blood pressure was in check as he readied himself for his debut in the 2004 Ryder Cup. Despite hearing the horror stories of suffocating pressure inherent in the biennial battle between Europe and the USA, where intensity makes grown men tremble, Donald was unruffled as he sent golf balls into the horizon. In fact, he started to wonder what all the fuss was about.

Then he walked to the first tee.

"Everything changed," Donald told USA TODAY Sports. "The nerves really kicked in. I was very surprised how nervous I got, how something happened to me when they announced my name."

His opening tee shot offered proof. Donald's drive wound up 50 yards right of the fairway. His partner, Paul McGinley, rescued the team, however, with a fairway-splitting drive and the two won the opening hole.

"I had a hard time putting the tee into the ground because my knees went wobbly," Donald said. "It probably was the most nervous I've ever been on a golf course. There is nothing like it."

PAIRINGS: These groupings look good

The Ryder Cup is where the golf clap goes to die. Where booing is not frowned upon and patriotism is ratcheted upward. Where pressure becomes the 15th club in the bag as the burden of playing for country, for team, for captain can become overwhelming.

It is where tough-as-nails Chris DiMarco was supposed to hit the first shot in 2004 but begged partner, Jay Haas, to hit it instead. It is where gritty Mark Calcavecchia lost a 4-up lead to Colin Montgomerie with four holes to play in 1991 and soon needed paramedics to slow his breathing down. It is where 18 holes are like being stuck in a blender â?? if your match gets that far.

"Your ability to stay in the moment and control your emotions applies to this event more so than any other event in golf," said 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup captain and four-time participant Paul Azinger. "You can go to a major and want to play well, and if you don't, you are not on TV unless you are Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods, so no one sees you.

"At the Ryder Cup, from the very first shot, there is nowhere to hide."

BRENNAN: Europe can ride Rory

The 39th edition of this international conflict begins Friday at Medinah Country Club. As the USA tries to regain the Cup after losing in Wales in 2010 and tries to regain its swagger after losing six of the last eight matches, five rookies will make their debut this week -- Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Jason Dufner and Brandt Snedeker for the USA; Nicolas Colsaerts for Europe. All five have been in the ears of teammates for weeks now, trying to glean advice on how to handle the stress when the cauldron starts to boil.

Snedeker, who is a bit on the jittery side as he talks fast, walks fast, plays fast, said he is under "no illusion" that he will be as calm as he was last week in Atlanta when he dominated the stretch run to win The Tour Championship and the FedExCup Playoffs -- and $11.44 million.

"I've already talked to a few guys about it, and they all said the same thing â?? there's no way you can get ready for it, so just embrace it and go on. I might hit it off the planet, but a lot of people do that so you just go on," Snedeker said. "I remember the first time I played the Masters as an amateur and how nervous I was. Basically you almost get to where you can't function. However awful I feel, at least I know the other guys are feeling the same way."

Tiger Woods was a Ryder Cup rookie in 1997 in Spain, but he got a taste for international team contests at Royal Porthcawl Golf Club in Wales two years prior in the Walker Cup, which features the leading amateurs of the USA and Great Britain and Ireland.

"I was introduced and just got a huge ovation of boos. I'm like, 'Oh, OK, welcome to the Walker Cup,' " Woods said with a smile. "Well, I got to Spain for the Ryder Cup, and it was even more so. And that was nice. That was good. It was fun."

So was being paired with good friend Mark O'Meara for his first match.

"I was lucky I got to go out with my big brother, and he kind of basically wet nursed me around and we ended up winning the match," Woods said. "I was pretty nervous starting out. It was like, 'Wow, this is so different.' Once I teed off and got into the match, it was like any other golf. Let's go beat these guys. Let's get a point for our side, and that's what Mark and I focused on. The golf doesn't change, just because the atmosphere is slightly different, it's still the same."

But Woods knows that's far easier said than done. U.S. captain Davis Love III said the pressure of the Ryder Cup is "almost unfair." Europe captain Jose Olazabal said he was shaking "like a leaf" walking to the first tee at Muirfield Village in 1987 with Seve Ballesteros, who said, "You play your game, Jose, and I'll take care of the rest." Olazabal said he calmed down â?? and Ballesteros did quite a bit the rest of the way in their victory.

The two said funny things just happen when pride, country and team are on the line and chants of U-S-A or Ole, ole, ole, ole start to rumble through the golf course. And goofy shots result in this pressure cooker, like the one five-time participant and 2002 U.S. captain Curtis Strange had to hit in 1987.

"I'm playing with Mark O'Meara at the Belfry in England against Seve and Manuel Pinero, and Mark hits the first tee shot into the tented village. And it was in bounds," Strange said. "And I hit the second shot out of guy's cup of soup, damn near, and I wondered where that shot from O'Meara came from. And he told me, 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe.' And I told him, 'Are you kidding me? You better start breathing because you got me as a partner.'

"Crazy stuff like that happens, and it does affect people differently, but I handled it pretty well. I was nervous, don't get me wrong, but I was never got out-of-control nervous. But until you go through it, you have absolutely no idea how you'll handle it."

Europe's Graeme McDowell, who said the Ryder Cup is "golf on adrenaline," handled the stress when he made his debut in 2008, although his first tee shot didn't end up in the best of places.

"I was on the tee with Padraig Harrington for a four-ball match and I was supposed to hit first. And Harrington, being the more experienced player, must have decided that I was really nervous by the looks of me, so he went first and he gave me a little bit more of a breather," McDowell said. "And I was nervous, I won't lie to you. But I hit a pretty good one, right down the middle, and I was walking down the fairway only to find my ball in a divot. And I told myself, 'Wow, I thought the Ryder Cup was hard, but now this.'"

Two years later, McDowell found out just how hard the Ryder Cup is. He and Hunter Mahan were in the anchor match in singles, and by the 12th hole, McDowell figured the entire Ryder Cup would come down to their match. By the 16th hole, nearly every teammate of the two was among the throng of people watching.

"I can safely say that I don't think I can ever be more nervous on a golf course than I was that day for those last seven holes. You're just trying not to mess up. You're trying not to lose it for your teammates," said McDowell, who pulled out the win for Europe by closing out the match on the penultimate hole. "I could have 200,000 spectators watching me, but two of my teammates watching me, kind of begging me to get the job done, there's something intimidating and very nerve-racking about that.

"Someone was going to be the hero and someone was going to be the villain that day. Thankfully I was able to get the job done. There's nothing individual about the Ryder Cup; it's a holistic kind of approach and everyone tries to get the job done. Part of me would love that opportunity again; part of me would hate it. But I'll take whatever comes."

Posted 9/26/2012 8:35 PM ET
Luke Donald, right, and Graeme McDowell enjoy a practice round Wednesday at the Ryder Cup. The pressure, however, will start to build.
Charlie Riedel, AP
Luke Donald, right, and Graeme McDowell enjoy a practice round Wednesday at the Ryder Cup. The pressure, however, will start to build.