Europeans winning over American fans
BLOOMFIELD, TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- The autograph policy for the 35th Ryder Cup Matches at Oakland Hills is quite clear -- they're not allowed. Anywhere.
So it was no surprise when European team member Lee Westwood walked off the seventh green, looked at a fan holding a pristine white Ryder Cup flag and politely declined to sign it Thursday.
The shocker was his reasoning.
"You got me already," he said.
Ian Poulter, in the next group some five minutes later, said the same.
"That's me right there," he told the same fan, pointing to some blue scribble on the white flag. "You don't want me signing twice."
"I don't know these guys," 39-year-old Chris Jenkins conceded. "It's just that every time I turn around, there's some European signing something. I can't believe it."
This is supposed to be the Ryder Cup, the closest golf ever comes to reminding people of pro wrestling. Fans are supposed to pop veins cheering for the home team and yell "Noonan" during the backswings of the away team.
It's supposed to be "us" versus "them." New school vs. Old school. The greatest homefield advantage in sports. Remember the War by the Shore in '91? The Battle at Brookline in 1999?
Yet something funny has happened here this week. The Showdown in Motown has gone soft. Sure, it's only been the practice rounds, with nothing counting until Friday, but just about every chance they got Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the European team stopped, signed autographs, posed for pictures and shook hands.
And the American fans stood there, stunned, their voices suddenly unable to boo.
"Aren't they sweet? You guys have been so sweet," said one grandmother.
"They seem so genuine and polite," said her husband.
The Americans signed too, but not like this. Not between every hole. Not for ten minutes at a time. Not by parading back and forth along the galleries hoping not to miss anybody. Not like they were trying to give John Kerry and George W. Bush a run for their political money.
It's all part of European captain Bernhard Langer's plan. Kill 'em with kindness. After Ryder Cup tensions boiled over in 1999 at Brookline, with rowdy American fans acting boorish enough to deserve the British tabloid headline, "United Slobs of America" Langer and U.S. captain Hal Sutton have set out to make this week peaceful and low key.
Langer admitted Thursday that he pulled his team together early this week and "strongly encouraged" them to sign autographs, take pictures and schmooze with the American fans, perhaps convincing some of them to switch allegiances.
"We've gone out of our way to interact with them," Langer said. "It's been fantastic. The people are realizing that we're 12 good guys. Just because we come from across the ocean and from a different country doesn't mean we're all aliens."
They've shown personality, what with Miguel Angel Jimenez chomping on a stogie during his practice round and Poulter revealing a toned-down Mohawk. And it's worked. There was one female fan, standing in front of a slimmed down Colin Montgomerie, for years America's favorite European whipping boy, someone compared to Mrs. Doubtfire and asking for a picture with "Europe's sexiest player" -- with a straight face. There was another fan, whipping out his U.S. passport, asking Sergio Garcia to sign.
"Your passport?" Garcia asked.
"Absolutely," the fan said.
"Well, umm, OK," Garcia said, before jotting down his signature.
Terrell Owens has nothing on these guys. The Europeans carried their own Sharpies, pulling them out of their pockets as they walked up and down the course, signing just about everything put in front of them. On the eighth hole, European assistant captain Joakim Haeggman, lured by a group of fans, pulled the captain's golf cart to the gallery where he let five fans slip under the ropes, climb above the cart and take a picture.
The result? Sprinkled throughout the galleries on Thursday were puzzled Americans, unsure who they should root for. Their red, white and blue brethren, who hit it further, putt it better, but barely crack a smile and always seem to be in work mode? Or their European counterparts, laughing, smiling, smoking cigars and cracking jokes up and down the fairway?
"It's nice to know there are players out there who will stop, shake your hand and take a few minutes," said Paul Keet, who was wearing a Stars n' Stripes t-shirt. "Of course, I'm not talking bad about the Americans or anything."
Keet, 41, born and raised in Michigan, went one step further, thanking the Europeans as they walked by and then proclaiming this bombshell to everyone within earshot.
"You know guys, I don't know who to root for tomorrow."
European team member Paul Casey overheard him.
"We don't mind if you root for us," Casey said. "Honestly, really, we don't. You're more than welcome."
Whether or not the love will last through the weekend is anyone's guess. The PGA has limited alcohol consumption to certain areas of Oakland Hills, all away from the course. They've given security the green light to eject anyone that verbally abuses a player. And the headline on the front page of Thursday's Detroit Free Press read: "For Detroit's sake, behave!"
Who knows what will happen when points start going up on the scoreboard and tensions start to build. But perhaps one American fan summed it up best, after positioning himself behind the 18th green, then waiting thirty minutes for Tiger Woods to walk by Thursday, only to watch Woods ignore him after he finished his practice round.
"That's it," he said. "I'm cheering for the Europeans."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.