Spirit Europe’s trump card

I have looked as hard as I can around this monster of a golf course and searched the massive structure that is the clubhouse.

Spirit   Europe’s trump card

Yet still I cannot find the place at Medinah Country Club where the official toss of a coin will be held to settle this 39th Ryder Cup.

It really is going to be that close come Sunday evening if these two teams are as evenly matched as they appear to be on paper.

The Americans, marshalled by captain Davis Love III, have the majority of the form players on their side, with nine members of the 12-man team finishing in the top 15 at last Sunday’s Tour Championship in Atlanta.

Europeans Justin Rose and Luke Donald finished second and third behind Brandt Snedeker at East Lake though, with Rory McIlroy tied for 10th and Sergio Garcia tied for 15th with Phil Mickelson and Zach Johnson.

Lee Westwood was the other Euro in action last weekend and he was one of four Europeans, along with McIlroy, Rose and Donald, who finished in the top 10 of the final FedEx standings, giving them equal representation to the American team.

Furthermore, José Maria Olazabal has three players in the top four of the world rankings and in McIlroy the best player of them all right now, whatever those play-off standings may suggest otherwise.

Of course, a Ryder Cup is not decided by money lists, tournament wins, putting stats or on internet chatrooms but in the white-hot cauldron of a ramped up golf course with an amped up crowd. How these 24 players react to that atmosphere, how they hold their nerve in moments of extreme duress and just how steadily they putt in the pressure cooker this biennial contest produces will separate the winners and losers.

There will be Europeans and Americans who will thrive, others among them who are cowed and it just seems to come down to how many fall into each category.

Home advantage suggests raucous Chicagoan galleries chanting that spirit-lifting if monotonous “USA! USA!” chant will give the Americans the edge, as will the roars that will reverberate around Medinah No 3 with every US birdie.

Yet this is not a European team that looks easily intimidated and behind the team-room door Olazabal, with his trusty lieutenants Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Paul McGinley, will have transmitted their steely demeanour and passion for this event onto their players. Not that such traits need reinforcing in the likes of Garcia, Ian Poulter and Westwood, nor McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, Donald nor Paul Lawrie. These are hard men for the hard road and just as they rose to the occasion at Celtic Manor with the pressure of delivering to a home crowd, they will be able to handle any baiting by the American supporters.

Even the one rookie in the European team, Nicolas Colsaerts, seems superbly adjusted to the trial ahead over the next three days and therefore this 39th Ryder Cup will also come down to who putts best.

Davis Love correctly labelled Snedeker and McIlroy as the two of the hottest putters in golf given their recent performances but with all the US captain’s experience in the Ryder Cup he should know to expect the unexpected, especially on putting greens. Players putt for dough for the rest of the year and can fail repeatedly but get them to a Ryder Cup and they turn into birdie machines. And the magic seems to help Europe more often than not.

For Bernhard Langer’s miss at Kiawah in 1991, there are three times as many examples of Europeans playing out of their skins for the cause. Peter Baker, Philip Walton, Phillip Price all became unlikely heroes and Olazabal’s relatively lesser lights like Colsaerts, Lawrie, Peter Hanson and Francesco Molinari can emerge this weekend as new European heroes.

There were not enough of them in Valhalla four years ago, when it was the Americans’ turn to master the greens but, paradoxically, that stinging defeat by Paul Azinger’s team over Nick Faldo’s had all the hallmarks of captaincy masterclass rather than player failure.

It was a systems error and Olazabal will not make the same mistakes this week as Europe once again defend a title on US soil.

The Americans can play all the table tennis they want but they still cannot match Europe’s camaraderie and spirit. Europe can win this. There is precious little room for error on the visitors’ part and they will need their share of luck, but when that coin finally settles, it will prove to be a Euro. This is one team that will not be nickel and dimed.

Europe by a point.

The greatest Ryder Cup shots ever played

5. A walk-off ace for Paul Casey

Six players have made a hole-in-one in the Ryder Cup, but the ace by Paul Casey at The K Club in 2006 was the only one to end a match.

Europe had little trouble beating the Americans that year, and this match was no exception. Casey and David Howell already were five up in a foursomes match Saturday against Stewart Cink and Zach Johnson when they came to the par-3 14th hole, the match dormie.

From 213 yards, Casey hit a 4-iron — moments after European captain Ian Woosnam said his teammates had been hitting 3-iron — and the ball landed a few feet short of the hole and tumbled into the cup. It set off one of the loudest cheers in Ireland and led to one of the Ryder Cup’s more awkward moments. Casey conceded a one to Cink, meaning he is credited with a hole-in-one on a shot he didn’t hit.

“Very surreal situation, not actually walking up to a green and putting out or shaking hands on the green,” Casey said. “A fantastic moment.”

4. Justin Leonard’s putt at Brookline

“My hunch is that Justin needs to go home and watch it on television,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller said on Saturday as Justin Leonard was struggling in a fourballs match at The Country Club in 1999. Not much changed on Sunday, when Jose Maria Olazabal built a 4-up lead on Leonard early on the back nine in what was shaping up as a pivotal match.

With a big putt and some mistakes by the Spaniard, however, Leonard fought back to square the match coming to the 17th hole. By then, the stakes were obvious. The Americans needed a half-point to complete the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history.

Leonard fired at the pin, only for the ball to spin back down the slope to 45 feet. Olazabal had about a 25-foot putt.

Leonard sent his putt up the slope, and while it was on a good line, it also had plenty of speed and likely would have gone some 6 feet by. It dropped swiftly into the back of the cup and set off the biggest celebration of the day — too much of a celebration when players and wives charged across the green, even though Olazabal still had a birdie putt to halve the hole. When order was restored, Olazabal missed, and the Americans had won the Ryder Cup. Leonard’s putt made the difference.

“I think the ball was just destined to go in,” Leonard said.

3. The 2-iron by Christy O’Connor at the Belfry

The matches were tied at 10 as the Sunday singles were just starting to unfold in 1989 at The Belfry when Europe regained control by winning four straight matches on the 18th. Perhaps the most significant of all was Christy O’Connor Jr v Fred Couples.

O’Connor had not played in the Ryder Cup in 14 years. He had never won a match, and this looked like a losing cause when he was 1 down to Couples with three to play. O’Connor made birdie on the 16th to square the match, and both found the fairway on the 18th.

That’s when the Irishman delivered the shot of his life. It was a 2-iron from 229 yards that he fired fearlessly at the flag and watched it settle 4 feet from the cup. It shook Couples so badly that he missed the green with a 9-iron and took three to get down from there. O’Connor knocked in the birdie putt, and tears filled his eyes.

Jose Maria Canizares won the 18th in the match behind him, assuring Europe would keep the cup.

“The best I have ever played under pressure,” O’Connor said of his 2-iron. “I’m absolutely thrilled.”

2 Paul Azinger’s shot out of the rough at the Belfry

Seve Ballesteros and Paul Azinger rarely played a Ryder Cup match that didn’t include fireworks, from either their shots or their words. The opening singles match in 1989 at The Belfry was no different, especially when it reached the 18th hole with Azinger clinging to a 1-up lead.

The American, who had teamed with Chip Beck to beat the powerful European tandem of Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam in fourballs, knew he only had to halve the final hole to win a point. And he promptly hooked his tee shot into the water. Azinger took a drop, lucky that the ball sat up in the rough instead of plopping into a depression, but it looked no less bleak with Ballesteros in the fairway.

He had 232 yards and had to carry two sections of the water. Azinger used a baffler — what today would be a version of a hybrid — and smashed it out of the rough, over the water and into the bunker. Ballesteros realised he could no longer afford to lay up, so he went for the green and found the water.

Ballesteros wound up holing a 35-foot putt for bogey to make it interesting, though Azinger is one of the best from the bunker. After that great recovery, he splashed out of the bunker to 4 feet and made bogey to halve the hole and win the match.

1. Seve shows magic with three-wood in a bunker

Seve Ballesteros already had lost a 3-up lead with seven holes to play, fell behind and caught up against Fuzzy Zoeller, and they were all square playing the par-5 18th at PGA National in 1983. Ballesteros hit a poor tee shot, and his next shot went into a bunker, the ball near a steep lip. It looked like the Spaniard would have to lay up short of the water and take his chances from there.

Ballesteros, as only he can, saw a different shot. He chose 3-wood from 245 yards.

“I thought, ‘What is he going to do with that?’” said Bernhard Langer. “Then I saw the most amazing shot I have ever seen.”

Ballesteros somehow hit out of the sand, beyond the lip, over the water and onto the green. He made his par and halved his match with Zoeller. U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus called it “the finest shot I have ever seen.”

And it speaks volumes how the Ryder Cup was regarded in 1983. While it is considered among the most spectacular shots Ballesteros played, no video footage of it has been found.

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