MEDINAH, Ill. — The Ryder Cup week is a very special time for me. It’s truly one of the highlights of my professional golf career.
Over the years I have been very fortunate to meet a lot of interesting people through golf and the PGA of America. This week is when I get the opportunity to form relationships and spend time with some of the greatest players in the world.
As a PGA officer, we are assigned an assistant captain to pair with for the week. Our job is to drive a team golf car, provide food and drink to the players while they are on course, store clothing and do whatever is needed during competition. This frees up the assistant to interface with the players.
This year I was privileged to get assigned to Fred Couples. A week ago, Tim Finchem, who is the commissioner of the PGA Tour, announced that Couples would be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May of 2013.
Couples is a former Masters Champion and 14-time winner on the Tour. He played in multiple Ryder Cups and has captained the U.S. to victory in the past two President Cups, a match between the U.S. and the rest of the world — excluding Europe.
Freddie has always been a huge crowd favorite going back to his early days on the Tour, when he was nicknamed “Boom Boom” for his monstrous drives.
Couples is Mr. Cool in everything he does. His mannerisms, his suave demeanor, his good looks and his mellow personality have made him a darling of golf fans for nearly four decades.
This week Couples comes to the Ryder Cup with an ailing back that forced him to withdraw from a Champions Tour event a couple of weeks ago. He is probably done playing in 2012, and it was a great tribute to his friendship with Davis Love III that he would show up here this week to perform the duties of an assistant captain given the pain that he is in.
I spent Monday night eating in the team room with Couples, Tiger Woods, Steve and Nicki Stricker, along with Mike Hulbert, another assistant captain. As Stricker once told me, “Freddie is just one of those cool guys that all men want to be like, and all women want to be around.”
That’s a rare combination.
Tuesday I spent the day with Couples as we were assigned the Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson group. This was the first group out, and we spent 10 holes with them before we dropped back and hauled Tiger along with his caddy, Joe LaCava, back to the clubhouse after nine holes of play.
Most of the Ryder Cup team has played eight of the past 10 weeks on the Tour. The players are trying to pace themselves into this week’s competition. Our guys played 9 or 18 holes Tuesday and Wednesday and then go just 9 holes today before the opening ceremonies.
Woods by his own admission wasn’t consumed with Tuesday’s practice round. It was apparent that the rookies were wired and had lots of energy.
Mickelson and Bradley played Watson and Simpson in a match worth a few bucks. Other veterans like Stricker, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson used the majority of the practice round to putt or drive.
It was incredible to see the crowds for the practice days here at Medinah Country Club given the fact that only 24 players are on the course at one time.
Couples spotted a young kid dressed in orange with a flat-billed cap as we drove up to the practice tee Tuesday. The lad was probably 12 years old.
“Hey, Rickie, what are you doing here?” Couples yelled as we drove by. The reference was to Rickie Fowler’s standard orange dress Sundays at the PGA Tour events.
Once the practice round got started, the kid all of a sudden showed up inside the ropes with Freddie. The next thing you knew, his kid sister also was walking alongside Couples. We kept the kids in peanut butter sandwiches and plenty of drinks before they returned to their parents on the 11th hole.
Think about that. You are a school kid cutting class to go to a practice round at the Ryder Cup. You spend 10 holes inside the ropes with Fred Couples, Butch Harmon, Jim McLean, Mickelson, Simpson, Watson and Bradley. And then you show up on the WGN news at 6 p.m. There has never been a better reason to experience detention.
This has been a relaxing and good start to the Ryder Cup week for our players. There is a good mix of rookies and veteran leadership. Love and his wife, Robin, have gone out of their way to make all of us feel a part of the team. Everybody seems to be on the same page and a U.S. victory is the only goal we have.
The key will be to keep this same atmosphere going once the competition starts Friday.
Our team room has four pingpong tables (table tennis is the correct term, according to Phil). Each morning in the locker room, players are verifying their table tennis records with each other in their head-to-head matches.
“Now, Zach, you were 3-5 against me last night, right,” chided Mickelson.
“Yeah,” Johnson replied. “But, the week’s not over.”
That’s right, it’s only starting, and my bet is the table tennis will not take a back seat at night to the Ryder Cup. The pingpong match time might become shorter with strategy meetings and 36-holes ahead the following day. But, the spirit of the competition won’t change.
That is just one of the many things that makes this week so special.
Ted Bishop is PGA of America vice president and director of golf and general manager of The Legends Golf Club in Franklin.