How Europe’s ‘Miracle at Medinah’ unfoldedPublished 9:35am Thursday, October 4, 2012
Column: Jim Litke, Associated Press
There’s something about Spaniards tilting at windmills.
At the start of the day, most golf fans reckoned that European Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal had the same chance of succeeding as the mythical Don Quixote. Olazabal left the course Saturday night saying defiantly, “I still believe,’” but few people beyond his staff and the dozen golfers on his squad were with him.
Europe trailed 10-6 heading into Sunday’s dozen singles matches, a deficit made up only once before, and that was by a U.S. team playing in front of a raucous home crowd in what became known as the “Battle of Brookline” in 1999.
So order your copy of the “Miracle at Medinah” video now. This is how it will unfold:
Olazabal’s strategy to front-load the lineup with his hottest players looked smarter as the day wore on. But it paid immediate dividends, too.
Luke Donald teed off first in the opening match against Bubba Watson, and although the Englishman was born in Hertfordshire, he’s called Chicago home since arriving at Northwestern University on a golf scholarship more than a dozen years ago. What sounded like a scattering of “boos” were actually cries of “Luuuuke!” for a guy the hometown galleries always treated like a local hero.
Donald cracked his drive down the middle of the fairway. Watson, who worked the grandstands into a frenzy the two previous days before hitting his tee shot to the crowd’s full-throated roar, tried the trick a third time. The left-hander hooked his drive into the gallery on the right.
Fellow Englishman Ian Poulter and Webb Simpson were set to start when an unmarked, black state police car zoomed up to Medinah’s ornate, Byzantine-styled clubhouse and Rory McIlroy jumped out. The European star’s match was scheduled to go off in 11 minutes. Back at the team hotel, McIlroy had been watching The Golf Channel, which showed his 11:25 tee time here in the Central Time Zone as 12:25 EASTERN.
McIlroy was never big on warming up. But this was ridiculous.
“Put my shoes on, a couple of putts, just your average sort of warm-up,” he would chuckle after winning his match against Keegan Bradley, the breakout star on the U.S. side. “It was probably a really good thing I didn’t have to think about it too much.”
McIlroy hits his opening drive into a tangle of TV cables well off the right side of the No. 1 fairway.
Tiger Woods tees off against Italian Francesco Molinari with most viewers still asking the same question they slept on overnight: “What was U.S. captain Davis Love III thinking when he put the once-(and sometimes-still) best golfer on the planet out in the 12th and final match?”
Exactly a two hours into the matches, Europe gets its nose in front, leading 4-2, with five matches even.
Donald, who never trailed after the first hole, is already 2 up. Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, who trailed from the start against Zach Johnson, is 3 down. The four Europeans who contributed zero points in the first two days — German Martin Kaymer and Swede Peter Hanson played only once — are holding their own. Scot Paul Lawrie is already 2 up en route to the day’s biggest beating, a 5-and-3 win over Brandt Snedeker.
Even Lee Westwood, whose meager contributions in team matches left him looking on occasion like he would hide in the trees, is more than a match for Matt Kuchar.
The same galleries that screamed themselves hoarse Friday and Saturday as the Americans rolled out to that big lead are doing a lot of nervous whispering.
Europe 4, U.S. 3, with five matches even.
Love turns up for an on-camera interview and it’s clear he feels the same sense of foreboding. He reveals he advised Watson, still 2 down to Donald at the 16th, to do the same thing he told Justin Leonard in the middle of America’s improbable comeback at Brookline: “Drag him out as far as you can.”
Not quite on par with “Win One for The Gipper.”
Soon after, Watson hits his tee shot at the par-3 17th into the gallery behind the green.
Donald puts Watson away to pull Europe to within 10-7.
More “Luuuukes!” as Donald stops for an interview.
“I feel a lot of love from the crowd,” Donald said, “and just a lot of relief that that game is over.”
McIlroy continues to make practice look overrated — even moreso when your opponent does your work for you.
Bradley has been the emotional engine for the Americans and reaching into his motivational bag of tricks, he takes a big risk by trying to drive the reachable par-4 15th green. He winds up just in front of a grandstand and makes a nice recovery shot to set up a par. McIlroy takes the safe route. He lays up with his drive, knocks his approach within a few feet and slides in an easy birdie to go 2-up.
After he finishes off Bradley two holes later, an interviewer asks, “Extra special to take out what is their talisman really?”
“When I got the matchup,” concedes McIlroy, who isn’t ranked No. 1 in the world for nothing, “I liked it.”
Lawrie mercifully closes out Snedeker at No. 15, the earliest end to any match. Good thing, too, because the Americans manage to take only 1½ points from the six matches that reach the 18th. Europe claws back to 10-8.
At the 17th, meanwhile, Poulter gets his hands on the lead for the first time in his match against Simpson. Despite falling temperatures, the noted clotheshorse is still playing in shirt sleeves. Embroidered on his left sleeve is a silhouette of the late Seve Ballesteros, one of Europe’s best and most beloved Ryder Cup players and their captain in 1997.
“Seve is trying hard,” Poulter would say after making par at 17 and a birdie at 18 to finish off Simpson. “It’s incredible.”
It is incredible. The matches stretch for nearly 4 1/2 hours before the U.S. team gets its first point when Dustin Johnson dusts off McDowell to restore the Americans’ lead at 11-10.
But in short order, Rose dispatches Mickelson with three clutch putts in a row — the first for par from 35 feet and last two for birdies — turning a 1-down deficit into a 1-up win.
“Now I know how Ian Poulter feels. I had a glance down and looked at my left sleeve,” he says, referring to the Ballesteros silhouette. “That’s the kind of stuff he would have done today.”
Even announcer Johnny Miller is picking up on the vibe: “The impossible is thinking about happening,” he says.
Westwood has a 1-footer to close out Kuchar, 3 up on the 16th green. As he looks over the putt, he looks back at Kuchar to see if the American will concede. Kuchar won’t. Westwood taps it in to even the match once again at 12-12.
Moments later, Sergio Garcia decides not to concede the 8-footer Jim Furyk needs to halve the match. Furyk misses and Europe pulls in front at 13-12.
Kaymer drives into the right bunker on 18 and his approach shot rolls 20 feet past the flag. Waiting for Stricker to play, his caddy begins massaging his shoulders. Stricker hits his iron 45 feet past the flag and the crowd makes one final, feeble attempt to pump up the U.S. team.
“USA! USA! USA!” rings across the ground.
In short order, Stricker misreads his putt and runs it down the left side of the green, still a good 8 feet from the hole. Kaymer’s nervous jab at a birdie is only slightly better, sliding two yards past.
Stricker misses and all that stands between Kaymer and the win are 6 measly feet.
In 1991, Bernhard Langer, the first German to make a Ryder Cup team, faced a par putt of the same length on the 18th at Kiawah Island to keep the cup in European hands. He missed.
Kaymer pours his in the middle of the hole. He lets the handle of the putter drop at his side, balls up his fists and raises both hands in the air.
“When you were standing over that putt on 18,” a reporter asks Kaymer, “did you think about Bernhard Langer and his putt in 1991?”
“I don’t like the question,” he replies, “but it’s true. Yes I did.”
Jim Litke is a sports columnist for the Associated Press.