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Ryder Cup 2021: Cheeseheads should bring different fan vibe at Whistling Straits

Ian Poulter of England and team Europe hands a cheesehead hat to a fan on the 18th green during a practice round prior to the 43rd Ryder Cup.

Warren Little

September 23, 2021

HAVEN, Wis. — They may be the nicest people in America. Wander the streets of virtually any town in Wisconsin and you’ll feel like the local folk took a friendly pledge as soon as they could speak.

“It’s ingrained to be a good person,” Steve Cubinski, a Ryder Cup fan dressed in stars and stripes from neck to knees, said during a practice round this week at Whistling Straits. “And that starts with common courtesy—like holding the door for somebody, saying please and thank you, and excusing yourself when you bump into somebody.”

Avoiding generalization, of course, Cubinski contends that his Wisconsin brethren as a rule can take a joke as well as dish one out. They are people, after all, who don foam cheese as hats in support of their beloved Green Bay Packers. “We’ll give you a little bit of ribbing,” he said, “but it’s all in good fun. We’re not out to jab people seriously.”

That ethic, that attitude, will certainly be heavily tested in the 43rd Ryder Cup that begins Friday in America’s Dairyland. The last time the matches were played in the U.S., in 2016 at Hazeltine National outside Minneapolis, the homey Midwestern vibe lasted until the first competitive ball was struck. Then the proceedings got progressively nasty.

The tension between Europe’s players and the spectators reached an unfortunate peak on Saturday, when the most unlikely of combatants, Rory McIlroy, was the target of a fan’s obscenities after he’d demonstratively celebrated winning a hole. McIlroy stopped and pointed to the man and implored security to remove him.

The PGA of America found the incident disturbing enough that it released a statement on Sunday that unruly fans would be ejected.

“That got loud and somewhat crossed the line at times,” Steve Stricker, the current U.S. captain, said of Hazeltine, “which we don’t want to see.”

Fan intrusion became a frequent subject late in the recent PGA Tour season, mostly focused on the heckling Bryson DeChambeau has received during his public feud with fellow American and Ryder Cup teammate Brooks Koepka. In September, Commissioner Jay Monahan said fans could be kicked out of tournaments for bad behavior.

It would be rather shocking to hear DeChambeau take abuse this week, given the patriotic nature of the matches. If it happens, it figures to be tossed at the Europeans players, and what remains to be seen is whether it’ll be good-natured, aw-shucks stuff, or something that gets Ian Poulter’s or Sergio Garcia’s blood boiling.

“Yeah, I expect good, rowdy fans,” Stricker said. “It's going to be rowdy. It's going to be loud, especially the first tee, and pro-USA, obviously. So we're looking forward to that. We need that. We need that backing. It is our home turf.”

Still, the man who uses “super” as much as most people sprinkle in “you know” is hoping for the kind of upbeat, overwhelmingly positive support his Packers enjoy at Lambeau Field, rather than insults hurled at the other side.

Captain Padraig Harrington of Ireland and team Europe hands out balls to fans during a practice round prior to the 43rd Ryder Cup.

Warren Little

This is, after all, supposed to be a Ryder Cup with some perspective, given the tragedy and enduring hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which delayed the matches a year. Because of travel restrictions, there will be few Europeans here to wear their colorful garb and belt out their soccer songs—something that contributes indelibly to the event’s unique atmosphere.

It figures to be very one-sided in a crowd that could swell to 40,000 each day. In the practice rounds, fans in the packed grandstands obliged with “U-S-A! U-S-A!” as the American groups approached the greens, but, sadly, there was no “Ole! Ole! Ole!” for a rebuttal.

That might change come game time, but there have been few noticeable Europeans on the grounds, and so Darren Low—a Scotsman now living in Davenport, Iowa—and a couple of blokes were feeling a bit, well, exposed in their kilts as they followed Wednesday’s practice round. Other than a few Norwegians, they hadn’t encountered many people flying the blue Euro flag.

Asked what he’s been hearing from people, Low said, “They just love the kilts. Everybody is happy to see some kind of support here. Everybody is really friendly. There’s not one bad thing I’ve heard from anyone. It’s a great atmosphere.”

Derek Low, a native of Scotland who now lives in Iowa, attended Wednesday's Ryder Cup practice round in a kilt. (Photo by Tod Leonard)

There was a light-hearted scene near the putting green on Tuesday. McIlroy was practicing with a semi-circle of various length putts. There was one six-footer he kept missing, and the crowd needled him with “Ohhhhh” every time. McIlroy chuckled, and when he finally made one, he thrust his fist in the air and people cheered. Teammates Jon Rahm and Shane Lowry burst out laughing. It was all in good fun.

Cubinski, a native of Wisconsin who now lives in Minneapolis, said he watched on one hole as a young fan called out to Garcia for a photo. The Spaniard stopped so the dad could snap the shot.

“I don’t know if Sergio would normally do that,” Cubinski said, “but it seems like it’s more fun out here this week without a million dollars on the line.”

European captain Padraig Harrington brilliantly produced his own charm offensive on Wednesday, having his players emerge from the tunnel at No. 1 tee in green and gold and, hilariously, wearing cheeseheads. Further kissing up, Harrington proclaimed he’d switched allegiance from the Patriots to the Packers. “A fan for life” now, he insisted.

Gary D’Amato, the longtime golf writer for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel who now covers the game for Wisconsingolf.com, believes that the state’s golfers have come to appreciate the sport more than ever over the last 17 years, having watched Whistling Straits host three PGA Championships and now the Ryder Cup, and Erin Hills holding the 2017 U.S. Open. D’Amato said he does hope for a different, more positive atmosphere for this edition.

“I would expect it to be rowdy, but civil,” D’Amato said. “If people cross the line, I would put money on it that they’re not Wisconsinites. That’s going out on a limb, because it’s not like we’re angels. But if you hear derogatory stuff, I don’t think it’s going to be a guy from Wisconsin who waited his whole life to see a tournament like this in his home state.”

D’Amato has seen Milwaukee-area fans get overly fired up and obnoxious, but he contends that’s mostly reserved for Brewers-Cubs or Packers-Bears. “Those sides genuinely hate each other,” he said.

Otherwise, D’Amato offered, “I think we approach sports a little bit differently than people in other places in the country.”

These are, indeed, good times here, with the Milwaukee Bucks winning the NBA championship, the Brewers having clinched an MLB playoff spot, and the Packers getting one more season out of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Even the University of Wisconsin has a big matchup this week—hosting Notre Dame.

It would seem the only thing Ryder Cup fans have to lose is their temper.

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