Hope you packed earplugs! Chicago bearpit is America's 13th man
22:00 GMT, 27 September 2012
A critical hole, Phil Mickelson called the 17th at course three, Medinah Country Club. He said its amphitheatre effect gave it a special significance. ‘You can really feel it as you play,’ he added.
And the United States will be hoping to feel it at Medinah this week, particularly on Sunday when the Ryder Cup hits its peak. They will be hoping to feel it from a breed known as the Chicago sports fans, much ballyhooed around these parts.
Just about every American player who has trooped through the media tent this week has fielded a question about the frenzy of the local support. Even Luke Donald, an Illinois resident for 15 years, was asked to characterise what makes a Chicago sports enthusiast special.
Patriot: An American golf fan watches play during Thursday's practice round ahead of the Ryder Cup
So notorious is this fervour that Saturday Night Live had a recurring sketch about it. Bill Swerski’s Superfans ran for two seasons, 1991 and 1992, and typically featured a group of blowhard Chicagoans gathered in the sports bar run by Mike Ditka, legendary coach of the Chicago Bears NFL franchise. They would gorge, smoke, drink and predict outlandishly huge victories for their favourite sports teams.
Skits had them discussing who would win out of Ditka and a hurricane (Ditka, unless the hurricane in question was Hurricane Ditka) or how many points Michael Jordan would score for the Chicago Bulls if he played the entire game alone, on a recliner (he might be kept to under 200).
The dialogue would invariably end in a heart attack caused by the over-consumption of Polish sausage — pronounced sassage — or a toast to ‘Da Bears’ or ‘Da Bulls’. All around the table wore dark sunglasses and thick moustaches, like Ditka.
On Sunday, the uniform is intended to be red, as the PGA of America implore those attending Medinah to show their support for the home team. Be our 13th man, is the instruction. Chicago sports fans will need every last drop of energy, however, if they are to drag this American Ryder Cup team over the line. For those sitting at the back of that critical 17th watching practice rounds on Wednesday, the home team were offering very little to paint the town red about.
Long before a hapless flunky had managed to roll the team buggy down a steep slope, there was disquiet in the bleachers. The 17th is a 193-yard par three across water, and, although no player got wet, not enough hit the green for the comfort of the home crowd, not even Tiger Woods. From the 12th hole, water is a feature at Medinah, with the 13th and 15th, in particular, offering the risk-reward combination that makes for thrilling matchplay.
Watery grave: The hazard by the seventeenth green could claim some high-profile victims this week
‘The 13th will be vital momentum-wise as you’re heading down the stretch,’ said Mickelson. ‘My take on the 15th is that it is an easy birdie laying up, but while it is technically reachable from the tee, it is really not possible to drive. As disappointing as it will be for fans, we have to play what’s in front of us, and the lowest score will be the shot laying up.’
Desperate measures, however, may dictate otherwise. An impending defeat might inspire one last bid for glory. Here’s Bubba Watson on the same dilemma: ‘With my four-wood, depending on wind conditions, I can reach the 15th. There are a lot of factors that go on with that: wind, pin location, how I’m hitting that day, where we are in our match. They will all determine what goes on at that moment.’
Also by then, the boisterous mood may be pulling the participants in some strange directions, not least as cold canned beer was being sold even in the stands during practice rounds, just as it is in American sports arenas. Vendors walked with the supplies in cooler trays hung from the neck. ‘Beer man here!’
Lee Westwood says he was pursued by a supporter dressed as a ghost at Valhalla in 2008, the last time America won. ‘He kept jumping out and shouting “Boo!”,’ he recalled. Chicago’s sports fans are unlikely to be more refined, or even as subtle.
The players’ reaction to that could cut either way, of course. The eyes of Davis Love, America’s captain, filled with tears as he answered a mundane question concerning Mickelson two days ago, and Watson — known as Blubba after breaking down on winning this year’s Masters — admits he has already shed tears during practice rounds.
Inspired: Phil Mickelson (left) says he is relishing the atmosphere at Medinah Country Club
‘The first day going up on the first tee, I had a pretty big roar, and that was special to know that the crowd was behind us, behind me,’ he said. ‘It was an honour and I might have teared up a little bit, but nobody noticed, so it was good.
‘It’s just that trophy. It’s funny, it’s just that little trophy we want to win so bad. And it’s the United States flag. The military wears that flag everywhere they go; they give us the freedom to play golf, to play the Ryder Cup. People I’ve never met fight for our freedom, so I hope to hit some good shots for them.
‘I haven’t been in the military and unless there’s a draft I’m not going to be, so this is the one chance I get to represent our country and, I hope, represent it well. The passion comes from that. All the people that pull for me, even the ones who don’t like me in the US — now they cheer for me in this one event.’
Yet does America care as much as Bubba When the Chicago Tribune wrote last year of the city’s drive to attract more visitors, the prospect of hosting the Ryder Cup north-west of downtown did not rate a mention beside the G8 and NATO summits that took place in May. Nor is the city alive with Ryder Cup fervour. Sports talk here still centres on the NFL and the prospect of the Chicago White Sox reaching baseball’s post season.
Spooky: Lee Westwood (right) says he was pursued by a spectator dressed as a ghost at Valhalla in 2008
So if the Ryder Cup has wider importance it is that it engages America in team competition against the rest of the world. The Olympics aside, that does not happen too often. FIFA are doing their best but the progress of US soccer players in the World Cup is hardly headline news back home. America still engages on its own terms: sending NFL teams to play a one-off fixture at Wembley rather than nurturing a global contest; calling a domestic baseball competition the World Series. The growth of the Ryder Cup, therefore, is uncharted territory.
‘It seems like each two years everything doubles,’ said captain Love. ‘The people watching, the number of cameras. Our country has caught on, thanks to Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer, really. It’s like the America’s Cup yacht races — I never heard too much about them, until we started losing. Then everybody got real interested. The PGA was having a tough time selling the Ryder Cup, but those guys made it something America is now passionate about.
‘There are golf fans who don’t know much but the Ryder Cup. We just went through an Olympics, and this is our Olympics. People realise our team is going up against an unbelievable team from Europe, and they want to see what happens.’
Bill Swerski’s Superfans would at this point predict a United States victory, 29-0, with Mike Ditka carding 52 while playing with a billiard cue, but realistically this should be another European win. It may, however, need steely resolve and a set of ear plugs.
‘Walking to the first tee on Tuesday, I knew we weren’t in Wales any more,’ said Matt Kuchar. ‘There was such an eruption of excitement when we got to there: it was an awesome feeling being on home turf.’
A Golf Channel poll, however, has 71 per cent of voters making America the underdogs. Whether Medinah can be another Valhalla for the men in red may well be out of the hands of Chicago’s sports fans.