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Nerves, nationalism – and Tiger and Phil, too

For all the Masters gives us with Amen Corner, the azaleas and the ghosts, for all the withering, slow-bleed pressure of the U.S. Open and all the untamed, old world charm of the Open Championship, nothing in golf goes to the gut like the Ryder Cup.

“I love this event more than any other event in the world,” Ian Poulter said this week. “I just love it.”

He’s not alone.

The Ryder Cup, which begins Friday morning at Medinah Golf Club on the outskirts of Chicago, is extraordinary theater, team golf wrapped in chants of “USA, USA!” and throaty refrains of “Ole, Ole, Ole!”

It’s why there were an estimated 10,000 watching Ryder Cup rookies Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson play a practice round on Tuesday, so many that Simpson said it felt like Sunday at a major. It’s been that way all week at Medinah, where planes roar overhead on final approach to nearby O’Hare Airport, and will likely be drowned out by the cheers once play begins.

The Ryder Cup feeds on nerves and nationalism, making teammates out of independent spirits and seemingly turning each hole in each match into a chapter Aaron Sorkin would like to write. Bring it all together over three days on a big, broad golf course, sprinkle it with Seve Ballesteros’ spirit, a Chicago crowd and Rory McIlroy’s new preeminence and it’s supremely compelling.

This Ryder Cup sets up beautifully, staged on Medinah’s sprawling property, captained by gentlemen golfers Davis Love III and Jose Maria Olazabal and matching teams that can each claim the favorite’s role.

The Europeans boast four of the top five players in the world golf rankings. The Americans have the Masters and U.S. Open champions plus Tiger Woods.

By the time the first official shots are struck Friday at 7:20 a.m. Chicago time, it will turn from conjecture to competition.

Listen to the players who have been there before and they tell stories of shaking hands and churning stomachs on the first tee. Eyes glisten. Chests tighten. Pride swells.

“It’s a different kind of pressure,” Europe’s Lee Westwood said. “There’s a lot of pressure in a Ryder Cup but I think there’s a massive amount of pressure at a major championship in the last round. The Ryder Cup, it’s a feeling of not wanting to let anybody down.”

That’s what separates the Ryder Cup.

The Europeans have been more successful recently, having won six of the last eight Ryder Cup competitions. There is not a player among the 12 on the American team with a winning record in the Ryder Cup. Tiger Woods, for all of his accomplishments, has celebrated one Ryder Cup victory, 13 years ago after a remarkable U.S. comeback at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

This will be Woods’ seventh Ryder Cup, Phil Mickelson’s eighth. They have grown into the old men of the team along with Jim Furyk. Beyond the golf, their presence should help season Simpson, Bradley, Brandt Snedeker and the other young players who will likely form the future core of American teams.

Woods and Mickelson play doubles ping-pong together now and there’s a sense if their differing styles once chilled the team room, they warm it now. Neither has a Ryder Cup record to match their individual achievements and both would like to change that.

“I think Phil is a lot like Tiger,” Love said. “They both came on to the teams trying to win a whole bunch of points and they thought that was how they were supposed to do. Now they just want to win.

“I can’t tell you how many times both Tiger and Phil have said, whatever you want us to do, we’ll do it.”

No one expects Mickelson to play all five matches this weekend. Woods, on the other hand, will probably go the distance.

Woods has been where McIlroy now is, atop the world rankings and the undisputed star of his team. Woods, it should be noted, is second in the world and the name the Europeans will look for first each time the pairings are set.

When Furyk said earlier this week that McIlroy was “a marked man,” it was meant respectfully, a nod to how good the 23-year old has been over the past 15 months. It also spoke to how important it will be for the Americans to win points against McIlroy, who will likely spend the first two days paired with Graeme McDowell.

Among McIlroy’s strengths is his sense of the bigger picture. He initially downplayed the Ryder Cup before he played his first at Wales two years ago, where he was instantly struck by the passion at play.

“This week I’m not the No. 1 player in the world. I’m one person on a 12-man team and that’s it,” McIlroy said this week. “It’s a team effort. There’s 12 guys all striving towards the same goal. I’m just part of that.”

There are no small parts to the Ryder Cup. Part of its magnetism is the sense that everything is important.

“It’s going to be intimidating but it’s going to be brilliant,” Poulter said. “Yes, there is a divide this week but there should be a divide this week. Sunday night we’ll all have a beer together and enjoy what hopefully should be a great spectacle.”