Reporting from Newport, Wales — Several hours before the flags and nationalism became the background for a golf match, the spectators paraded down a huge hill by the thousands.
There would be an estimated 45,000 of them on hand this Thursday of Ryder Cup week.
They would see no golf where they were headed, other than a few of the two dozen of the greatest players in the world practicing putts. Conveniently, the ground around the putting green had plenty of little hills and so, when Padraig Harrington stretched out a 10-foot string, dropped six balls long at the end of it and missed his first five tries, it became a sort of grand theater.
"He's just teasing us for tomorrow," said one woman, thick of build and Irish brogue.
Opening ceremonies for the 38th Ryder Cup, matching the United States against Europe and starting over the Twenty Ten course Friday morning, would be Thursday's only official show. But this event has become so big, in the eyes of so many golfers and even some fringe fans, that there was a buzz of anticipation, nevertheless.
The day was overcast, with a nice breeze, and event organizers would probably kill for three more of the same. As the parade of people marched past No. 18 and headed downhill for the food courts and merchandise tents, one sartorial characteristic was obvious. This will be a mud-on-the-pants-cuffs weekend.
Thousands ended up at patio tables surrounded by the food courts. They took in the scenery, as well as fish and chips and a pint or two. It seemed Celtic Manor had turned its farmland into a miniature Times Square.
Another good place to munch before the speeches and flag-waving began were the bleachers at the No. 1 tee. There has been much talk of this, of how the nearly 5,000 spectators, seated in a horseshoe around the tee box, might be intimidating for the U.S. golfers, who will certainly be treated with much less gusto upon introduction than their European counterparts.
That's probably silly. All the golfers have played under a great deal of pressure before, and this one isn't even for money, just a little trophy that costs around $400. Still, it is something to talk about in the run-up, and the more talking that takes place these days before sports events, the more stature the event seems to get.
One of the little shops in the fan area displays Ryder Cup memorabilia. There are lots of pictures of European heroes such as Seve Ballesteros and Ian Woosnam and a film that plays over and over and seems to stress the time that unheralded Phillip Price beat Phil Mickelson in a previous Cup. Home-course advantage is a big ace card in this competition.
It is possible that this very area of the most fan activity, hole Nos. 1 and 18, will be where the drama will take place.
No. 1 is a simple hole, a par 4 that plays 464 yards, has a few traps out about 260 yards that these golfers can try to clear or avoid and a few traps in front that also can be avoided by players of this caliber. But then, it is, after all, the first hole.
No less than Lee Westwood, the unofficial leader of the European team, has said that, unlike most pro tournaments where you want to ease into the event, in the Ryder Cup, you want to hit the accelerator right away and get ahead. Bad starts can knock you out of the match immediately, he said.
The 18th is a different matter. There is little simple about it, not to mention that it is the hole where, so often, Ryder Cups are won and lost and history is made. It is a par 5, will play at about 570 yards, finishes going downhill in a narrow fairway and demands a risky second or calculated third shot that makes it high enough on the green so as not to roll back down into the water in front.
Think Kevin Costner (Roy McAvoy) in the movie "Tin Cup."
The 18th hole also provided a natural amphitheatre for the opening ceremonies, alongside the last 200 yards of the fairway. Tens of thousands climbed the hills and found a vantage point. Somebody sang from "Man of La Mancha," where Don Quixote dreamed the impossible dream and reached for the unreachable star.
And soon the speeches began and the flags waved and there was so much pomp and circumstance and emotional videos and hugging that that you started looking for the arrival of heads of state.
We can forgive the Ryder Cup its excesses. After all, the thousands of people with mud on their cuffs certainly did.