A remarkable Singles Sunday at the Ryder Cup in Medinah wasn't just a case of ‘what if’ for the USA. A series of fortunate twists diverted the Big Mo to Olazabal’s Europe. Was Seve watching, asks Simon Lewis?
THE white tour bag with the word ‘Europe’ emblazoned down its side stood forlornly on the practice putting green, its clubs unswung, its owner nowhere to be seen. Some 100 yards away, at Medinah’s first tee, the focus of attention was firmly on those golfers with a driver in hand as a day that would go down in sporting history was just sparking into life.
For most of the spectators crammed into the surrounding grandstand and filling the large expanse of ground between that putting green and tee box, it was all set up to be a coronation for their guys; a procession through this immaculate country club’s grounds that would see Tiger, Stricks, Bubba and Webb, Phil, Keegan and all the others reclaim the Ryder Cup on home soil for captain Davis Love.
A sea of red and that ubiquitous “USA! USA!” chant had greeted the players in the first two singles matches as they crossed the footbridge that carried the protagonists from the putting green to first tee, transporting them from expectation to reality and the Americans were in good spirits. Their team had a commanding lead at 10-6 heading into the final day’s 12 singles matches and were 4½ points away from regaining the trophy Colin Montgomerie and his men had grabbed from them at Celtic Manor two years previously.
There had been a mini-European revival the night before when the visitors had won the last two rubbers in the afternoon’s fourballs but hey, 10-6? That sort of lead had only been squandered once in a Ryder Cup, and it was the Europeans who had folded then, at Brookline in 1999.
From the back of the tee box looking down the first fairway that morning it was difficult not to sense the self-congratulatory mood among the home support. Fat cigars were already being smugly puffed as Bubba Watson was given a hero’s sending off in the opening singles match against Luke Donald.
If they had turned away from that scene, back toward that putting green, they would have felt even more assured of the victory to come because that bag was still standing there, upright and untroubled, its contents polished to within a millimetre of their metallic integrity by a caddie with no master and time on his hand.
The sight would have hardly dampened American spirits and when word filtered among the crowds, courtesy of several thousand smart phones delivering texts, Twitter feeds, and news flashes, that Europe’s best player was not on the property with his tee time looming, the delight was scarcely containable.
European captain Jose Maria Olazabal will have heard the Yanks sing “Rory, Rory, Where Are You? Your tee time is right now” to the tune of Glory Glory Hallelujah, but the Spaniard knew his main man was on the way and if any player could hit the ground running it was McIlroy, the kid from Holywood who a month earlier had stormed to an eight-stroke PGA Championship win that had also seen him oversleep en route to glory.
And so it turned out again. Having arrived 10 minutes before his tee time and stepped out of the passenger seat of an Illinois State Trooper’s car, hastily pressed into service after the golfer had read his start time as 12:25 but neglected to compute that it had been given as Eastern Time, rather than the Central Time Zone he was actually in.
Still, a hug from Olazabal, a quick word with caddie JP Fitzgerald, a bite on an energy bar and three practice swings was enough to prepare him for taking down the USA’s in-form Bradley, 2&1.
“Imagine if I’d have warmed up properly,” McIlroy joked that night, from the safety of a remarkable European victory.
McIlroy’s win was vital to his team. Not only had he taken down one of the American’s hottest players, he had maintained the momentum started the previous night by Ian Poulter’s five-birdie charge to a 1-up fourball win with McIlroy over Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson.
DONALD’S singles victory over Watson and Poulter’s over Webb Simpson had set the tone on Sunday morning and McIlroy continued it as Europe, driven to honour the inspiration that was the late Seve Ballesteros, swept the opening five matches to set American nerves jangling.
But it was a close-run thing and McIlroy’s dash to the tee box was just one of the numerous ‘what ifs’ of that curious, tension-filled weekend of sporting drama.
What if Davis Love had not rested the red-hot Mickelson-Bradley partnership on Saturday afternoon, when the US captain had Olazabal’s number and the Americans had their feet on European throats? What if Poulter had parred just one of those five closing holes in that same session rather than birdie them? What if Jim Furyk’s twilight putt had gone in and he had halved with Sergio Garcia? And what if Martin Kaymer had not talked long and earnestly to Bernhard Langer that night in desperate search for form, confidence and a sense that he actually belonged on Team Europe.
Olazabal needed every point on that final day as Europe overturned the American lead with the biggest single-session score since the 8½-3½ Sunday rout by Ian Woosnam’s team at the K Club in 2006, and just as important to the cause in the 14½-13½ “Miracle at Medinah” was Kaymer’s unlikely 1-up victory over Steve Stricker.
The German had gone into the Ryder Cup so short of the form that had taken him to a PGA Championship in 2010 and the world number one spot thereafter, that pundits were speculating whether he would recuse himself from duty in Chicago for the good of the team. Their speculation gained credence when Kaymer skipped the final European qualifying tournament, the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles in August, with the naysayers saying he had sat out the event in a bid to get overtaken in the automatic qualification standings.
Kaymer didn’t care. He kept himself to himself, practised hard and felt ready to go by the time he arrived at Medinah. Still, there were concerns and in the second session on Friday he had been carried by fourball partner Jusitn Rose to a 3&2 win over Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar.
Not awe-inspiring by any means and Kaymer was benched all day Saturday, leaving the German with even more time to ponder his woes. Vice captain Thomas Björn had taken him under his wing and it was during another soul-searching conversation that fellow assistant Darren Clarke entered the scene.
“He came into the room, as well,” Kaymer recalled, “and both, they said (it) might be a good idea if you talk to Bernhard about his experiences, because he had to deal with a lot of different characters on the team and had to feel comfortable to play his best golf.
“I thought it was a very good idea. Then I called or I texted Bernhard on Friday evening, if he has time for me, and then we sat down for an hour and talked about a bunch of stuff. There’s not really one or two things that popped out which is important. Just the whole talk was very nice. It inspired me more. It gave me the right attitude for the Sunday.”
Was it fate that gave Kaymer an almost identical putt to win the Ryder Cup that Langer had faced at Kiawah Island 21 years earlier? Perhaps, but the thought only crossed the younger German’s mind once and briefly as he surveyed the uphill, inside right line. It was an easy putt, he told himself, one he had sunk countless times — “no second doubt, inside right, step up, make it”.
He did just that and Europe celebrated a win few had thought possible just 24 hours earlier.
“The thing about it, it was such a fine line between being the hero or the biggest idiot,” Kaymer said. “And fortunately it went the right way.”
What Davis Love III thinks
I THINK about the Ryder Cup a little bit every day. Still. You can’t help it. Someone brings it up every day. I think about why we didn’t win, what went wrong.
This much is clear to me: there wasn’t one fatal mistake at Medinah. Critics like to single out Tiger Woods’ 0-3 record in team matches, or the fact that we sat our best pairing, Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, on Saturday afternoon. But we were four points ahead after Saturday. What else can you ask for?
I do wonder why we played differently on Sunday. We planned everything — except we didn’t plan on being four points ahead going into that final day. I had been consulting with sports psychologist Bob Rotella leading up to the Ryder Cup. But coach John Calipari had Bob with him throughout Kentucky’s title run last season, and looking back, I wish I would’ve done the same. On Saturday night as I headed back from the media room to address the team, I found myself wondering, ‘So we’re four ahead, what do I say when I walk back in there?’
All week I told the players to relax and have fun. That’s what worked the first two days, but you could see it right away on Sunday: they were tight, nervous. Why would you be nervous when you’re four points ahead? Why would you try harder on Sunday than you did on Friday and Saturday? If anything, we put too much effort into those first two days, because historically that’s where we’ve always seemed to fail. All day Sunday, I still thought we were going to win. We just needed a few guys to finish it off. Somewhere around 5 I finally realised, ‘Holy cow, they’re not finishing it off.’ That’s when it went bad.
I knew going in, the narrative was either going to be the team won or the captain screwed it all up. And ultimately I didn’t get them to calm down on Sunday. That’s on me; that’s coaching.
It was a great week, a great two years leading up to it. Would they ask me to be captain again down the road? I don’t know. If asked — which means the players wanted me back — I’d do it. But I won’t get asked.
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