On Sunday afternoon at Congressional Country Club, a 22-year-old wunderkind with dark hair sprouting from beneath his cap planted his feet in the manicured grass and exhaled. Though thousands of eyes were focused on Rory McIlroy, the only audible sound was his three-wood cutting through the air and — thwack! — violently finding its target.
The circus was 13 miles around the Beltway, where no one got the memo that the world should remain silent during a golfer’s backswing.
“Look at this! Look at this!” yelled D.J. Garrillero.
In the preceding hour or so, a blister had taken up residence on his index finger, the result of a full day of passionate drumming. Garrillero arrived at RFK Stadium more than seven hours before the soccer match between his beloved El Salvador and Panama. One day earlier, he had visited a music store and plopped down $250 for a used bass drum.
“It’s only for today. That’s it,” said the 29-year-old from Hyattsville. “Just to have fun today.”
There was no time for lessons, and what he lacked in artistry, he made up for in fervor.
“We just make noise, bro,” he said.
On the surface, they’re very different sporting events. But they collided in the Washington area Sunday, each drawing more than 45,000 fans through their gates. The U.S. Open, one of golf’s premier tournaments, was being staged in Bethesda for the first time since 1997, while the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals were being held at RFK with a pair of matches; the United States played Jamaica before the El Salvador match.
Both were big-time events dropped into the area on a Sunday in June — one televised nationally by NBC, the other internationally by Univision. Different patches on the same quilt, one staged at a country club that requires more than $150,000 to join and the other at an aging stadium that has seen better days.
Two cultures were on display, both the genteel and the raucous — entirely different, yet very much the same.
While the parking lots around RFK began filling up hours before the first match, at 3 p.m., the golf course had been bustling since dawn. Hal Ellis arrived before 7 to stake out a spot near the 18th green. He wanted a good view of McIlroy’s expected coronation 12 hours later. The 52-year-old Ellis surveyed the crowd around the first tee box, a cigar between his lips.
“The one thing everyone has in common is probably manners,” he said. “There’s an etiquette.”
The grass was still wet with morning dew and his cigar was already half-smoked. No worries, though, because he had two more in a clear plastic bag that hung around his neck.
Midmorning, outside of RFK, 29-year-old Christopher Bristow, an ardent fan of the U.S. soccer team, was munching on a cigar, too, carefully studying his canvas. The bare torso of Ryan Hines was already painted blue from waist to neck. Bristow was trying to decide where to apply white stars.
“What about here?” said Hines, 20, pointing to his stomach.
“Here, here and here,” decided Bristow, who’d driven from Winston-Salem, N.C., the night before. He settled on stars over both nipples, the bellybutton and both shoulders.
“This is my first game,” Hines said. “I’m pretty excited.”
For many others, not attending Sunday’s matches wasn’t an option. Soccer is a matter of national pride, not a weekend distraction, which is why Francisco Medrano, 62, was in the parking lot, rotating sausage, beef and lamb on a grill for nearly 40 Salvadoran friends and family. Nearby, a two-on-two soccer game broke out on a tiny patch of grass.
“We would not miss this,” Medrano said. “Not for anything.”
After the Americans dispatched the Jamaicans and the El Salvador match began, the capacity crowd belted out the Salvadoran national anthem. It erupted at the conclusion, and the old stadium seemed to sway.
Earlier in the day, all around RFK, grills were decorated with charred flesh and pupusas. Fans of every nation had at least one thing in common, though the brand — Miller Lite, Corona, Sam Adams — varied. There was a woman wearing a tutu and a man standing on his head. Merengue music blared from car speakers, and seemingly every other person blasted an air horn, usually within a couple of inches of your eardrum. They wore flags as capes, bandannas, shorts, socks, shirts and headbands.
At the country club, however, the excitement was more internal. Fans filed into a 36,000-square-foot merchandising tent and loaded up on overpriced visors, sunglasses, umbrellas and golf balls — stuff to prove to friends that they were here. More than 430,000 items were for sale, all stamped with the U.S. Open’s logo, read a sign out front.
Perhaps it was separation anxiety from their BlackBerrys — rules force attendees to leave them home — but if fans dared to “whoo” too loudly, they drew stares and tsk-tsks. The do’s and don’ts of the U.S. Open are unofficial guidelines but almost universally agreed upon. Golf fans wore plaids, stripes and loud patterns. On the course, pastels are particularly in this year — and every other year, for that matter.
“Cool pants!” someone said to Joey Harrison and Alec Gard near the driving range. “Real funky.”
Joey, 15, and Alec, 16, bought the pants online for $90 a pair. Joey’s were black with perfect rows of brightly colored polka dots. Alec’s featured a fiery floral print on white, a pattern fit for a Grateful Dead show, perhaps.
“There’s just something about golf that draws me in more than any other sport,” Alec said.
Much like polo shirts, the appreciation and excitement here was tucked in, almost by rule. There were no enemies, and there was no booing. It seemed like no one was rooting for failure.
“They can run this thing with zero police,” Chad Bennett, 31-year-old fan from Chesapeake, Va., said while watching Phil Mickelson approach the third tee box.
As golf has jumped from country clubs to public courses, its audience has diversified. Sure, many are older, white and rich. But walking around Congressional the past week, they came in all shapes and sizes. Like Nate Deal and Mandy Rezac, who flew from Lincoln, Neb., to take in their first golf tournament. He wore shorts and a T-shirt, and she wore a sundress, so it was impossible to miss the colorful tattoos of flowers and birds that decorated their arms and legs.
Deal, 37, is a tattoo artist who long ago lost count of how many tattoos he has. Rezac, 30, a hairdresser, had her bleached blond locks bundled atop her head. She has about 15 tats, including a thorny vine wrapping around her right leg and a giant red ruby nestled between her shoulder blades.
“This is a blast,” she said. They’d met plenty of people, she said, and all were friendly.
Similarly, at RFK, there were no strangers. Garrillero, the blistery, blustery drummer, waved his blue flag and barked at fellow El Salvador fans as they pulled into the parking lot. Most of the crowd wore blue and, not unlike the golf tournament, the culture of the sport had inspired a strong sense of community.
“It’s like a reunion,” Garrillero said. “You see people you haven’t seen for 10 years, and you’ll see them here.
Panama would defeat El Salvador on a controversial late goal, and the boisterous fans in blue were none too pleased. They showered the field with litter. Some charged it, and others exited the stadium in handcuffs.
At Congressional, as the sun fell, the stoicism slipped away. McIlroy walked down the 18th fairway, steps away from becoming champion of the 111th U.S. Open by virtue of a record-setting performance — and thousands stood in unison. As he approached the final green, they screamed, whooped and chanted.
“Let’s go, Ro-ry!” they bellowed.
So, are these fans different? Are they the same? Or do they simply look and sound different?
After all, take away the plaid shorts, wash off the body paint — they all paid money, battled parking, overpaid for beer at the concession stand. They brought sons and daughters, friends from work and buddies from down the street. They planned months in advance, arrived early and stayed until the very end.
And whether it was a country club or a stadium, they did it for the same reason: to see something spectacular that doesn’t happen every day in Washington.