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The story of how Michael Jordan became Team USA’s “biggest cheerleader” at the Ryder Cup

October 06, 2021

Michael Jordan looks on during the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.

Richard Heathcote

That recent rout at Whistling Straits notwithstanding, Europe has been the dominant force at the Ryder Cup for the past three decades. But when it comes to firepower from the gallery during the biennial event, the Americans have held a decisive advantage during that time.

It helps to have the GOAT in your corner.

If it feels like Michael Jordan is always at the Ryder Cup, that’s because he is. Since attending his first in 1997, the NBA legend has been to every single one. And chances are better his Airness would miss a clutch free throw than miss what’s become his favorite sporting event as a fan.

So how did Jordan’s love of the Ryder Cup start? Turns out, at another golf event with much different stakes. Jon Miller, a longtime friend of Jordan’s and the president, programming of NBC Sports Group, says he remembers himself and Mark Rolfing talking up the Ryder Cup to Jordan in the early 1990s in Lake Tahoe at the American Century Championship.

“We would always tell him about how great the Ryder Cup was,” Miller says. “He would yes us and say, ‘Yeah, I”m sure it’s a great event,’ and we kept saying, ‘No, Michael, it’s the greatest event not in golf, it’s the greatest event in sports.' It became a running joke every year for five or six years we would tell him that.”

Apparently, Jordan was listening, though. While on vacation in Monte Carlo in September 1997, he called Miller about attending the Ryder Cup in Spain. The world’s most famous athlete had access to a helicopter through Gatorade, but needed a ticket. Needless to say, that wasn’t much of a problem.

Jordan and NBC's Jon Miller at the 2016 Ryder Cup.

Montana Pritchard/PGA of America

Miller says Jordan was snuck onto Valderrama via the kitchen in the NBC hospitality tent. And from there, he became an instant fan of the competitive team event.

“On the way out, when he got back in his helicopter, he said, ‘Jon, as long as you invite me, I will never miss another Ryder Cup,’” Miller said. “And I was like, ‘OK, Michael, sure.’”

But Jordan wasn’t kidding. And he’s gone to great lengths—and even one particularly unusual place—to continue this streak with a group of golf buddies that has included John Elway, Mario Lemieux and Joe Morgan through the years. In 2006, Jordan needed an extra parking pass and Miller offered his own, but with a catch: MJ had to meet him at synagogue on the way to Ireland’s The K Club on Yom Kippur.

“I’m sure there’s somebody out there with a picture of Michael Jordan showing up in his Ryder Cup attire while everyone’s getting ready for service,” Miller recalls. “These people thought they had seen a ghost. They just couldn’t believe, ‘Michael Jordan’s Jewish! Michael Jordan’s coming to Yom Kippur!’”

Jordan with Robby Miller at Valhalla in 2008.

But Miller is also quick to point out that Jordan doesn’t want to be the center of attention when he comes. In fact, the 6-foot-6 NBA Hall-of-Famer is careful to make sure he’s not blocking any fan’s view. There’s only so much he can do, though, when the best golfers in the world see him.

“What’s amazing to me is we’re sitting behind the green on 11 on Friday and Saturday, the number of players from both teams that when they finish up will come up to him,” Miller said of the 2021 event at Whistling Straits. “They all see him there and they all want to come over and say hello to them. And he loves that too, but it’s really a special thing for them.”

Jordan has been a friend of player-turned-captain Davis Love III dating back to their days as student-athletes at UNC when Love first introduced Jordan to golf. But in the past decade, Jordan has come to admire one player in particular on Team Europe. Although he did his best to avoid him at Whistling Straits.

Jordan shaking hands with longtime friend Davis Love III in 2016.

David Cannon

“He adores Ian Poulter, he thinks he’s one of the great competitors in all of sports,” Miller said. “He told me, ‘I don’t want to follow Poulter, because if he sees me, it gets him fired up,’ and he didn’t want to do anything to fire up the European team.”

After seeing Europe win so many times, Jordan especially enjoyed Team USA’s 19-9 victory last month. And even with the result long decided, he stayed until the winning point was officially clinched.

As one of sports’ all-time great competitors, there’s no doubt Jordan agreed with the reported “Step on their necks” tweet Tiger Woods sent the team before the final day. There’s even less doubt about where he'll be in two years when the event heads to Italy for the first time.

“He’s their biggest cheerleader and their biggest fan. He loves being there,” Miller said. "This is his special time. I don’t think there’s anything he loves other than his family and his kids and stuff like that, that he cares about as much as this event.”