“Mr. Palmer’s here in spirit,” Zach Johnson said, adding, “We’re all thinking about Palmer, certainly, and his family.”
Fifteen minutes before Rose hit the opening drive, a tribute video was shown on the scoreboard nearest the first tee. It was a montage that mixed memorable Ryder Cup moments involving Palmer with those of modern-day players and ended with this quote from Palmer: “The game brings out the best in us, and the best will always bring out their games at the Ryder Cup.”
The first day brought out the best in the United States, and its fans, who honored Palmer with positive stumping, for the most part cheering for the Americans instead of against the Europeans. There were exceptions. On the par-3 17th, Sullivan hit his tee shot into the water hazard. After his partner, McIlroy, shot from the drop area, a heckler yelled, “Get in the water,” and was quickly shouted down by other fans. At 18, McIlroy was standing over a birdie putt to halve the match when a heckler caused him to step away.
As the day wore on, and the Europeans chipped away at their deficit, the level of frustration, and a few blood alcohol levels, rose discernibly in the gargantuan galleries. Errant shots by McIlroy and his four-ball partner, Pieters, were met with applause. In a few isolated cases, the cheering for the Americans was supplanted by rooting against the Europeans.
To McIlroy’s displeasure, more fans started channeling their mean Twitter voices. The bow that McIlroy took after sinking a long putt to seal his and Pieters’s 3 and 2 win over Kuchar and Dustin Johnson was for the hecklers, said McIlroy, who described the environment as “hostile.”
“It’s a minority of people,” he said, adding, “We want this Ryder Cup to be played in a very sportsmanlike conduct, and a sportsmanlike conduct that the great, late Arnold Palmer would be very proud of.”
Arnie’s Army wasn’t always the model of decorum. Its members often shot off their mouths indiscriminately, usually when someone else was charging. For the love of Palmer, the Europeans ought to hold on to that thought.
“The fans here were very supportive of the United States and not antagonistic against our opponent, and it really had the spirit of what the Ryder Cup is about,” Mickelson said. It could very well have been out of respect for Palmer’s memory, he added, or it could simply have been that the area around Hazeltine naturally reflects Palmer’s western Pennsylvania roots.
“All of the majors that have been played here over the years, the people have been so supportive of the golf and so great to the players,” Mickelson said.
The head cheerleaders for the United States were members of the American Marshals, a group recognizable by its “13th man” jerseys and plush Viking hats with red braids and miniature American flags flying from each horn. Thirteen of them sat behind the first tee for foursomes and led a Palmer chant — “Arn-old Palm-er,” clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. They also serenaded the American players — and their wives and girlfriends (“There’s our ladies,” clap, clap, clap, clap, clap).
They showed restraint when Danny Willett made his way to the first tee to watch his fellow Europeans tee off. Before the competition, Willett’s brother, a schoolteacher, published a column for a golf magazine in Britain poking fun at American golf fans, calling them, among other things, “a baying mob of imbeciles.”
The American fans were as quiet as a praying mob when Willett came into view, holding their tongues out of respect for Palmer. As one member of the American Marshals said between midmorning sips of beer, “Arnie was the epitome of class and sportsmanship, and that’s what the Cup’s all about.”
Willett, the reigning Masters champion and one of six rookies on the European team, sat out the morning but played in the afternoon four-ball session. The 13 Viking-horned 13th men in the stands behind the tee box greeted him with the chant, “Welcome, Danny,” which couldn’t quite drown out the smattering of boos. The American fans were not completely above some mild taunting; around the first tee box during the afternoon session, they modified one of the Europeans’ favorite cheers, substituting “No points” for “Olé.”
As the afternoon wore on, the Americans lost their momentum, but the fans, for the most part, maintained their decorum. Before the event started, Kuchar said that everybody — fans and players alike — had probably been touched in some way by Palmer.
“I think we’re all trying to figure out how to best honor Arnie,” he said. The American fans and players on Friday no doubt would have gotten a thumbs-up from Palmer.