Saturday night in Chicago, the US Ryder Cup side went to sleep with understandable confidence. The team had charged to a 10-6 lead after two days of competition, and needed only 4½ points out of Sunday's 12 to reclaim the Cup from the European side. There was a bit of unease due to the Euros' two late-match wins in fourballs on Saturday evening, punctuated by yet another victory bellow by that troublesome Poulter chap. But for the Americans, the question was not whether they would win, but by how many points; perhaps there was some enjoyable guessing as to which American would clinch the winning point.
Sunday night produced the unthinkable prospect of the Cup's being hoisted by a bunch of guys chanting, "Olé, Olé!" Harking back to the Americans' stunning comeback at Brookline in 1999, European captain José Maria Olazabal front-loaded his Sunday lineup with players who might, just might, bring the visitors back into the matches. And just as it did in Brookline, the strategy worked; Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy, and Justin Rose each won narrow matches. When the Euros' oldest player, Paul Lawrie, decisively dispatched Brandt Snedeker, that gave the guys from across the pond an 11-10 lead that no one but the European side foresaw.
Still, the Americans' prospects looked bright. But when Sergio Garcia won the last two holes to take a 1-up win over Jim Furyk, and Lee Westwood finished off an inconsistent Matt Kuchar, the Euros were in a commanding position. Martin Kaymer completed the comeback miracle by catching and passing Steve Stricker late on a day when both players were off their games; both players shot 73 (counting conceded putts as holed) in a match marked by indescribable pressure.
Here are some idle musings in the immediate wake of the Medinah Massacre:
- It's hard to envision a meaningful future Ryder Cup role for Furyk after this weekend. He did claim one point in foursomes, but that was it for his three matches. This has been a dreadful season for him, capped by a high-profile loss on the biggest stage in golf. On the last two holes, he took an extraordinary amount of time to study and re-study decisive puts before pushing both efforts off to the right. Any professional has to develop a good case of golfer's amnesia now and then, but it's difficult to imagine how he'll do that after seeing him bent over in silent anguish on the 18th green Sunday, hands on his knees, pondering the loss of a crucial point.
- The US captain for the 2014 matches has yet to be announced, but his first priority should be to see if he can persuade Poulter to obtain US citizenship. (Hey; we flipped David Feherty; it might work here, too.) Poulter was the soul of the European side all weekend, and was the only player on either side to go 4-0-0; calling him the MVP of these matches is damning him with faint praise. No one ever got rich by betting against Poulter in the Ryder Cup.
- Davis Love's captain's picks went 5-8-1, but that result was skewed somewhat by Dustin Johnson's sparkling 3-0-0 weekend. The other three were . . . well, you can do the ugly math. Olazabal's two picks went 5-3-0, paced by Poulter's perfect card. Nicolas Colsaerts's only point of the weekend was a memorable dispatch of Tiger Woods and Stricker in Friday afternoon's fourballs. Colsaerts essentially beat Woods's and Stricker's better ball, as his partner (Westwood) basically lay down and died on him.
- The Europeans' Peter Hanson was largely invisible this weekend, playing (and losing) just two matches. Olazabal sent only two of his players out for all five sessions: McIlroy and Justin Rose. In contrast, no one on the American side played in fewer than three or more than four matches. Love rested his hottest two-man team, Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, Saturday afternoon at Mickelson's request. The strategy of ensuring that every man would be better rested for Sunday obviously didn't pay off.
- Woods is going to take heat after yet another disappointing Ryder Cup performance. He earned just half a point in four matches. In his foursomes and fourballs matches, he and teammate Stricker led for a total of three holes out of the 53 that they played – the first three of the ill-fated match against Colsaerts and someone dressed like Westwood. Woods's career mark in the matches is now 12-17-3. Unlike Furyk (and even Stricker), it's premature to predict that this will be the end of his international-play career; his play in the fourballs was sensational at times, especially on the back nine. He undoubtedly has plenty of high-level golf in him, and unless he stumbles badly, he'll qualify for future Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup squads. It's tempting to say that this loss, and his substandard play this weekend, will inspire him to come back with a vengeance in Scotland in 2014. But for Woods, it's always been about winning majors. And as important as the Ryder Cup is, it isn't a major.
- The Europeans were not without their own disappointments. Graeme McDowell, who anchored the Sunday singles in 2010, could mange only a single point in his four matches. Francesco Molinari harvested just a half-point in three tries, and that half came in a singles match that was rendered meaningless by Kaymer's winning putt. Still, he held his own against Woods, and that would have been a tough sell to bettors when the Sunday pairings were announced.
- The flip side of Woods's weekend was Dustin Johnson's. He played a total of 50 holes in his three rounds, and trailed for exactly one hole – the first of Friday's fourball with Kuchar. His crucial 25-foot birdie on Saturday's 17th hole gave the Americans a point that looked like it would be halved, and he pulled away from Colsaerts late in Sunday's singles. That point, coming in the sixth match of the day, was the Americans' first mark of the day, and temporarily stopped the team's bleeding on the scoreboard.
- Let's look at the rookies' records: Colsaerts 1-3-0; Bradley 3-1-0; Jason Dufner 3-1-0; Webb Simpson 2-2-0; Snedeker 1-2-1. Snedeker looked a bit lost on Sunday, but the other rookies looked like they fully belonged. Bradley and Dufner never appeared to succumb to the overpowering nerves that historically have been engendered by the event.
- As long as we're on this topic, let's consider each team's core of younger players. The Europeans had four players under 30: Colsaerts (29), Kaymer (27), and McIlroy (23). Molinari is just 30; Justin Rose and Garcia are 32. The other six players on the side will each be at least 35 in 2014. For the Americans: Bradley's 26; Simpson's 27, and Dustin Johnson's 28. The average age of the other nine players on this year's team right now is 37. It's reckless to predict now what the 2014 sides will look like, but even with the potential American addition of Rickie Fowler and perhaps another young gun, the Euros still have a younger base of excellent players.
- Of course, we can't get away without at least some idle long-term speculation. It says here that Darren Clarke will captain the Euros in Scotland, and Fred Couples will lead the Americans. Of those, I'm a little shakier on Clarke, as I've read that Colin Montgomerie is lobbying for a return to the captain's slot for the 2014 event. Since it's being contested in his home country, and given Monty's outstanding Ryder Cup record as a player (20-9-7) and as captain (1-0), I can see the possibility that he might get the nod yet again. Couples served as one of Love's alternate captains this year and has led the Presidents Cup team; he's enormously popular with his peers.
- A word about sportsmanship: After Kaymer ended the drama while Molinari and Woods stood in the fairway, Olazabal encouraged Molinari to play on in an effort to win the Cup outright, instead of merely retaining it on a 14-14 tie. The captain told his young charge that winning the matches was more important than just holding the trophy. Woods was clearly disheartened by the developments ahead of him; if Stricker had managed to pull out half a point, then the outcome of that final pairing would have decided the outcome of the matches, something that was unthinkable Sunday morning. In that situation, it's reasonably foreseeable that the 18th hole would have been played out a bit differently. I'm not suggesting that Tiger mailed in his 18th hole, but his post-match comments demonstrated that his heart just wasn't in it anymore: "We came here as a team. This is a team event. And the Cup was already been retained by Europe, so it was already over." In any event, after Woods missed his 4-foot par putt, he graciously conceded Molinari's of roughly the same length, giving Europe the final one-point margin, an act of sportsmanship that echoed Jack Nicklaus's similar concession to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 matches, after the US side had assured itself of a Cup-retaining 14th point. US captain Sam Snead privately fumed at Nicklaus's generosity; Olazabal won't have to stew over a similar fate this year.
For all the wonder that is the Ryder Cup, there is one enormous down side: the matches are only played every other year. That means we have to wait over 700 days before Ryder Cup fever breaks out again on both shores.