It’s 9am on Thursday. Thousands of fans have been at Valhalla since first light, patiently waiting. It’s getting close now, and everybody can feel it. The first man on the putting green is Phil Mickelson. Working with his caddie, Bones, Lefty is methodically slotting in 15-footers with a foot of right-to-left break. He has his game face on. Justin Leonard appears, briefly, before crossing the bridge to the driving range. On the way over he throws ball markers to the fans below. “This is fun,” he says. Boo Weekley is already there, drilling long irons by himself, working the ball both ways. His game looks in good order.
There is a commotion at the top of the hill that leads down to the putting green. Sergio has arrived and the fans flock to the fences to try and catch a glimpse of El Nino. He sets up on a flat part of the green, places two tee pegs little more than a putter width apart and swings through the gap. He is four feet from the hole – that difficult length – but his stroke is smooth and he holes everything. He moves on to longer putts, downhill sliders and, finally, a couple of bombs up the hill. His final putt tracks the whole all the way and drops in. There is a huge cheer. Who says Sergio can’t putt? Mickelson, meanwhile, has arranged six tees in a circle around a hole, all one-putter’s length from the cup. Bones puts a ball next to each one and Phil works his way round the circle, smoothly knocking each on in.
More players are starting to arrive. Rose and Poulter work both sides of the crowd as Jim Furyk, Soren Hansen and Robert Karlsson slip by almost unseen. As Sergio exits stage left, his friendly nemesis Padraig Harrington appears, stopping only to sign autographs for some Irish fans dressed as leprechauns. Miguel Angel Jimenez saunters down, huge cigar on the go, a grin on his face. Phil is still in the circle; he’s almost worn away the grass. Justin Rose is putting with a gizmo attached to the top of his putter that holds both forearms in place. One by one, they all head over to the range.
Padraig has a weight band on his left arm and is swinging with a glove under his armpit. Bob Torrance watches on impassively. Later, I see Padraig hitting his driver one-handed, first with his left arm, then with his right. Incredibly, most are straight and long. Coach Pete Cowan is a busy man, tending first to Oliver Wilson, who is swinging with a split grip, one-handed and then with the club turned around. He appears to be looking for something in his swing. Cowan then moves to Henrik Stenson. No trouble there, the Swede is murdering the ball. Westwood and Poulter are chatting about Henrik’s playing of 18 yesterday. “He hit it 60 yards past my 3-wood,” says Westwood.
A roar goes up. JB Holmes has arrived. Jose Maria Olazabal comes over to Westie and Poults and asks how it’s all going. “Hitting it lovely,” says Ian. Lee, meanwhile, is focused on his set-up, standing stationery over the ball for 20 seconds before striking each iron crisply. He’s also hitting it long and straight with his driver, bombing balls out of the driving range and into the presentation area which is being readied for tonight’s opening ceremony. One even bounds up onto the stage.
There is a commotion at the other end of the range. JB has swapped his 3-wood for driver and is limbering up. The first one goes well, but slightly right, the second he pulls slightly. And so it continues; he’s hitting long, but not straight. Finally, though, he gets it right. As soon as it’s left the clubface the crowd knows. It flies over the range, over the seating area, over the steps, over the stage and yes, onto the roof of the arena, some 40 ft in the air. The crowd goes wild, JB tips his cap and removes his black glove. Practice time is over.