With advances in sports analytics, the big brains behind the numbers can actually quantify the value of home-field advantage in various sports. In the NFL, for instance, the value season to season fluctuates between two and three points — that’s the boost you get from a supportive crowd and familiar surroundings. In the NBA, the number is around three points, and in college basketball, it rises to around 3.5.
Before we turn our attention to golf, though, consider two things about team sports. First, the players at that level play on the road all the time. That numerical advantage exists even though the players know exactly what’s coming. Second, the fans, while loud, are seated at a distance.
The contrast in golf on these two points is obvious. Professional golfers almost never play in front of a hostile crowd, but when they do, the fans are both extremely loud and incredibly close. So when you ask a group of Americans to play in front of 50,000 European fans who badly want them to lose, not only are they not used to it, but they have to perform with those fans almost literally breathing down their necks in a way that no other athletes are asked to do.
When you consider how overwhelming that might be, it starts to make a lot of sense that the last four Ryder Cups have been blowouts for the home team. All else being relatively equal, those thousands of partisan fans make an enormous, almost unquantifiable difference.
Which leads to the inevitable question: If you’re the United States, and you’re trying to win the Ryder Cup on the road for the first time in 30 years, how on Earth do you deal with that? Especially when eight of your 12 players have never experienced a road Ryder Cup atmosphere?
On Wednesday in Rome, several Americans spoke about that effect, but perhaps none had the recent perspective of Brian Harman. Although Harman has never even played in a Ryder Cup, he won the Open Championship in July in the face of regular heckling from a small but vocal portion of the British crowd.
“It was overwhelming at times,” he admitted. “I don’t think there’s any way to prepare for it. I expect them to be as fervent and I expect to be at times overwhelmed by it, just like I was at the Open Championship.”
Harman was uniquely open on how a fervent crowd can affect you, and candid about how difficult it is to prepare for that level of negative energy.
“The best you can do is just acknowledge it and just move forward and try not to let it affect you as best you can,” he said. “But it will affect you. You’d be silly not to think that. Obviously the home teams in the Ryder Cups have been extremely successful, and a lot of that has to do with the fans. They can affect outcomes of matches. It’s just our job to try to stay as present as possible and execute more than the other guys and see what happens.”
Brooks Koepka was one of just two players who spoke on Wednesday who had actually experienced playing the Europeans away from home — he posted a 1-2-1 record at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris —and he was typically terse in his response.
“I don’t think it was overwhelming at all,” he said, taking the opposite view from Harman. “I don’t know, it was a different week for me even than probably most of the other guys. I’m curious to see how this one is. I’m excited for it. I enjoy the silence sometimes.”
The concept of “enjoying the silence” was one echoed by a few other players, and hinted at one of the top coping mechanisms, which is to embrace the hostility and use it as fuel.
“I enjoy it,” said Rickie Fowler, the other player besides Koepka with experience in Europe. “I think a lot of the guys on the team this year do, as well … even if they’re a Ryder Cup rookie, they’ve been a part of other teams along the way. The reason I enjoy it is you’re the underdog. It’s fun to go try and prove them wrong. Our cheers are — yeah, we will have some fans, but kind of the quietness becomes our cheers.”
Max Homa is a convert to the idea of silence as well and has been reading up on what it might be like in a unique way.
“I nerded out and watched a bunch of the old away Ryder Cups on YouTube and just started really enjoying the silence because it meant that our team was doing well,” he said.
“I guess I don’t know what it feels like yet. I guess like the concept of it, if you can flip it in your mind that every time they’re not cheering, that’s great. If you can get it into your mind that you’d like to make a bunch of people sad, it’s also great. I feel like that’s something I’ve been thinking of. I think it’s just kind of changing that in your mind.”
“I think a lot of us played other sports,” added Wyndham Clark. “We were all athletes in many different sports, and I think we all said: ‘Hey, I love that it’s an away game. We feel like we can quiet the crowd, and it would be even more fun and more enjoyable to win on the road.’”
Clark also argued that the lack of experience for many of his teammates might be a secret asset.
“I think that ignorance is bliss in my opinion,” he said. “We have guys like Scottie Scheffler and Max Homa and Collin Morikawa and myself that have played on Walker Cup and Palmer Cup teams where we dominated, and all we know in our years is how to win, both away and at home. Then all we’ve ever seen and watched is that we lose on the road for Ryder Cups, and so I almost feel like we have a little added chip on our shoulder that I think this year.”
Morikawa, who like Harman won an Open Championship with some British fans openly pulling against him, was the lone player to make the point that even though the American fans will be vastly fewer in number, their presence is still important.
“Things like people cheering, you do hear it and you do draw the energy, but it’s almost like you know they’re cheering for the Europeans,” he said. “But you’re still going to have the fans out there for the US team that are going to be able to push you through, whether it’s one person or 50,000, having that one means the world.”
But whether the Americans practise acceptance or defiance, the fact remains that the crowd is perhaps the greatest obstacle to the success of their team, and the Europeans know it. Speaking on Tuesday, Tommy Fleetwood — one of the heroes of Paris — is keenly aware like all his teammates about the awesome power of a rabid home crowd.
“It’s our job as home players to make sure the crowd are as involved as possible and they have something to cheer about,” he said. “I remember for example in the afternoon of the Friday in Paris, we had a rough start to the Ryder Cup. We lost our first three games and then me and Fran [Molinari] turned our match around but the afternoon felt like we were breezing through the day because the first three matches were playing so well, we just rode the wave of what they brought and the crowd brought and we were like, well, everybody is just carrying us forward, and that actually made a huge difference … there’s 60,000 people that are on your side and that are pushing you along.”
And with those fans as the metaphorical wind beneath the European wings, the job of winning the Ryder Cup is made so much harder for the Americans. And if you ask at least one of those Americans, this year’s Champion Golfer, there’s not much you can do or say to prepare for the cauldron.
“It’s kind of like if you’re trying to give someone advice if they’re about to have their first child,” he joked. “There’s nothing you can tell them to get them ready for it. No, your life is going to change, it’s going to be really hard, but you’ll get through it.”
Main image: David Cannon