On Sunday night, when all the dust had settled, European team captain Jose Maria Olazabal stood motionless on the 18th fairway of Medinah Country Club doubtless attempting to acknowledge what had just unfolded before his very eyes. 150 yards ahead on the green in the penultimate singles match, Germany’s supposed out-of-form Martin Kaymer had just holed from six feet to beat Steve Stricker and ensure the European team gained the necessary 14 points needed to retain the Cup they had prised off the Americans two years previous at Celtic Manor.
Over the course of the afternoon in a sun-soaked Illinois, 12 European players attempted to recreate the spirit of the late Seve Ballesteros which would help them deliver one of the most brilliant sporting comebacks this game, and indeed any game, had ever seen.
The early omens were indifferent to say the least. With Luke Donald getting off to a blistering start against Bubba Watson in the opening match, news filtered to the course that a certain world number one was missing from the practice range. Rory McIlroy appeared at the golf course an incredible 11 minutes before his tee time with Keegan Bradley after setting his watch to Eastern Time when indeed Illinois is an hour ahead. The perfect preparation this was not.
Donald had stated before teeing off that it was going to be “an uphill battle but it’s my job, as well as some of the other early guys, to get blue on the board.” Throughout the entire match, he was a man possessed. The Englishman gained a three hole lead by the seventh tee after birdies at the first and fifth and never relinquished his grip on the contest thereafter. Not even a miraculous chip-in on the 16th by Watson could salvage the inevitable result as Donald closed out the game 2&1 with a stunning up-and-down from the greenside bunker on the par-3 17th.
With the memory of Ballesteros unquestionably rejuvenating the Europeans, a scoreboard that had oozed red throughout the first two days started to turn into a very steady drip of blue. Behind Donald was the buoyant Ian Poulter who, after birdieing the final five holes to win on the 18th the previous evening, tussled with Webb Simpson in a closely contested match along with McIlroy, Justin Rose and Paul Lawrie. It was evident that if Europe were to stand any chance of winning, they had to get off to the mother of all fliers.
Phil Mickelson, Rose’s opponent, seemed to have the measure of the Englishman without ever dominating. The pair traded blows all the way around the course until the American struck with what seemed to be a crucial birdie on the 14th. After halving the following two holes, Rose delivered a moment of magic. Mickelson’s tee shot on the 17th went long and, after nearly holing the return chip, made a par. Rose faced a 40 foot putt to tie the match which he duly went ahead and sunk. On the 18th, the occasion appeared to overwhelm the experienced man from San Diego. His approach shot flew the green and Rose took full advantage, knocking a high nine iron to 12 feet. Mickelson played an impressive pitch to within six feet but Rose was unflappable, rolling in his birdie putt to win the match. His reaction was manic and by this point the European team started to believe the Cup was there for the taking.
McIlroy’s disastrous start to the day did little to hamper his quest for a vital European point. His US counterpart Keegan Bradley struggled to replicate the sparkling form he had shown in the foursomes and fourballs and the former USPGA Champion succumbed to the Northern Irishman 2&1.
After Lawrie had humbled the newly crowned FedEx Cup winner Brandt Snedeker to the tune of 5&3, Europe has incredibly drawn level at 10-10. If the 50,000-strong partisan crowd were not silenced, then they were certainly not as vocal as they had been throughout the previous two and a half days.
Poulter, as has come to be expected in this competition, edged out Simpson on the 18th and showed the type of steel and determination made famous by the man that was embroidered on his, and every other European team member’s, sleeve.
As much as Europe probed, this was one of the best ever American teams who were not going to give up without a tenacious effort. Dustin Johnson and Zach Johnston saw off Nicolas Colsaerts and Graeme McDowell respectively.
Over the span of the final day there were numerous turning points but perhaps none as critical as the finale of the eight match between Jim Furyk and Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard, who was self-admittedly “not quite comfortable” during the whole week, clawed and scrapped his way around the course but found himself one down with two holes to play. However Furyk, like Mickelson before him, found the pressure too much to handle. Long with his tee shot on the penultimate hole, he could only manage to make a bogey against a regulation par from Garcia. And, on the 18th, another regulation par was enough to see the Spaniard claim the full point after Furyk was again long with his approach. After the match, Garcia claimed that his old mentor had been with him the whole way.
“Today, obviously, everything came right. I’ve no doubt in my mind that he [Seve] was with me today, all the way. There’s no chance I would have won my match if he wasn’t there.”
The magnitude of that match was obvious. If the American had clung on, they would have lead 13-11 with four matches remaining. In reality, it gave the Europeans the impetus to push on and win. Jason Dufner, unsurprisingly, beat Peter Hanson on the 18th having lead for the majority of the afternoon but minutes later, European stalwart Lee Westwood closed out a convincing 3&2 victory over Matt Kuchar to take the scores level.
At 13-13 and with Kaymer on the 18th tee leading dormie one, all that was needed was for the German to hold onto his lead and Europe would, unbelievably, retain the Ryder Cup. Both he and Stricker hit the green in two shots and, after the US player impressively two-putted, the player who came into the competition in the poorest form had a chance to make history. In a typically calm fashion, he did not disappoint. His putt dropped in the middle of the cup at dead weight. From there, the celebrations started. Kaymer galloped into the arms of Garcia and was mobbed by his other team mates. On the fairway, Olazabal was warmly embraced by Poulter and Rose who were watching Francesco Molinari complete his match against an obviously deflated Tiger Woods. (Woods would go on to miss a 2 foot putt and concede half a point to the Italian which, in actual fact, meant the Europeans won the Ryder Cup outright as opposed to simply retaining it).
Whatever Jose Maria Olazabal said to his team on Saturday evening clearly had the desired effect. Unequivocally it would have evoked emotion through the memory of Ballesteros who was more passionate about Samuel Ryder’s little gold trophy than anyone else. Europe had overturned a 10-6 deficit which will arguably go down as one of the best sporting comebacks in history. It was fitting that Olazabal’s men had managed to win but even more fitting they did it the way Seve would have wanted.