CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The hype was real.
An hour before the Presidents Cup’s official starter called out Thursday’s first match, the massive, temporary stadium surrounding the first tee was filled nearly to capacity. Some were there to cheer on the International team, of course — among the more obvious in that bunch were fans dressed in Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniforms, waving the familiar red-and-white maple leaf flag.
But the overwhelming majority wore red, white and blue. They wore beads around their collars, painted stars and stripes on their faces, and hung American flags over the elevated railings.
Speakers blasted popular stadium anthems. Fifty feet away, on the practice green, some members from both the International and U.S. teams worked on final adjustments, but even members of their entourages could be seen briefly bobbing to the beat before catching themselves.
Back inside the stadium, as the first tee times drew near, the chants grew in volume and frequency. Below the stands directly behind the first tee box, in the shadowed gateway leading to the team gathering rooms, a glint of sun caught the Presidents Cup trophy. Holding the chalice were U.S. team captain’s assistant Fred Couples and golf legend Jack Nicklaus.
As they paraded the cup to its podium amid the surrounding spectacle, the loudest roar of all echoed across the grounds — a golden gift from the Golden Bear.
It was a spectacle, yes, but not with the overdone braggadocios pomp of “Apollo Creed vs. Ivan Drago.” Instead, it was a reverent celebration, with captains Trevor Immelman of the International side and Davis Love III of the U.S. praising each other multiple times over, reminding everyone that, when this weekend is all over, they’ll all still be friends.
It was a festival of golf, they agreed, a weekend to celebrate the fact that “all 24 players (here) are committed to the PGA Tour.”
The stands erupted with cheers again as Love obviously chose those words specifically to highlight those golfers who have chosen to join the upstart, Saudi-backed LIV Tour, making them ineligible for this event.
The hype was real. It was loud.
And so was the Americans’ performance.
That the United States is favored is no secret. Every individual match’s betting line on Thursday morning showed the International pair as an underdog.
But while the stands and galleries across the course were awash in red, white and blue, the scoreboard was awash in only red. On the boards, a red scoreline indicated an advantage for the United States. A black scoreline meant the International team was ahead.
By the time the day’s first group — Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele of the United States, and Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama of the International team — had reached the turn, every match on the board favored the Americans.
Cantlay and Schauffele had the biggest lead of the day through seven holes, sitting 4-up at the time. (They eventually won decisively, 6-and-4.)
It was important, they said, to start turning the scoreboard red quickly.
Going out first, there’s a real advantage to trying to get red up on the board as early as possible,” Cantlay said. “I think it just gets everyone a little more comfortable and inspires them to just follow suit.”
Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas ran their lead to 3-up through six — the experienced teams for the U.S. showing their power early.
The crowds roared appropriately, sending sound waves across the modified layout at Quail Hollow and alerting those waiting a bit further down the course they might want to reconsider posting up at the 16th, 17th or 18th holes, lest they miss the end of the first set of matches.
“The fans have been awesome,” U.S. golfer Cameron Young said. “It’s been wild. I’m having a great time.”
Of course, other than the first match, everything tightened up as the day went along. It’s rare to see true runaway wins with golfers of this caliber. Spieth and Thomas, for example, won, but only by a 2-and-1 count. The other three matches came down to the final three holes and left the U.S. with a 4-1 lead heading into Friday.
While the individual matches got closer, though, the overall tenor of the situation remained the same: festive for the United States, tenuous for the Internationals.
It was a departure from the 2019 edition of this tournament — nearly the exact opposite, really. In that Presidents Cup, the International side bolted out to a 4-1 lead after the first day, and a 6 1/2-3 1/2 lead after two days, only to watch the Americans rally in Sunday singles to eke out a 16-14 win. If anything, that may make the U.S. that much more wary of what the International team can do this weekend, despite the results from Session 1.
While the U.S. team, its golfers and its captains are guarded against an International rebound, revelers numbering in the tens of thousands didn’t seem to care. Everywhere you looked — and listened — the roars followed the successes of those wearing, appropriately, Carolina blue.
And that left the International team feeling blue — and seeing red.