MEDINAH, Ill. – Lee Westwood didn’t have the greatest of days at the 39th Ryder Cup.
He rose in the dark and finished playing in near darkness, and he didn’t have a great deal to show for the 12 hours he spent on the golf course. His team trails 5-3 after a wild first day at Medinah, he couldn’t make a putt and his own overall performance was not very inspiring.
But he knows one memory of the day he’ll keep for a long, long time. His rookie four-ball partner, Nicolas Colsaerts, the Belgian Bomber with the muscles from Brussels, put forth a show that was one for the Ryder Cup ages. He made eight birdies – the last one to negate a Tiger Woods birdie at No. 17 – and added an eagle to nearly single-handedly beat Woods and Steve Stricker and provide Europe with its lone point of the afternoon session, 1 up.
“I had the best seat in the house,” Westwood said. “It was a joy and a pleasure to watch. You don’t know how people are going to react to their first Ryder Cup, and he took to it quite nicely. I didn’t have a lot to do.”
Clearly, Colsaerts was having the time of his life out there, loving the big stage. He’s monster long; that we’ve known. But on Friday at Medinah’s No. 3 course, he putted like the ghost of Bobby Locke. Everything he looked at seemed to vanish in the hole, including the clutch 25-foot, uphill swinging putt he made at a packed amphitheater on No. 17 for a birdie-2, with Woods’ marker sitting 4 feet away to potentially pull the Americans even in the match.
When the putt went in, Colsaerts, who most here viewed as a nameless face in the crowd on the European team, stood on the front of the green, his hands extended out to his sides, and taunted the partisan American crowd, almost as if to scream, “Do you know me now?”
Said Colsaerts, “You just can’t predict those things. I told Lee when we got to the 18th tee that it was my first uncontrolled reaction, which I guess everybody witnessed. But yeah, that’s what this tournament is about, when you make stuff like I did at 17. It just comes out of your veins and eyes . . . and it’s pretty special.”
Colsaerts, 29, who’d never finished better than 77th on the European Tour’s money list until two years ago, is clearly finding his feet, and could prove to be something pretty special, too.
He has athletic blood in his family lineage – his great-grandfather represented Belgium in the 1920 Olympic Games, playing basketball and water polo – and he plays golf like a true athlete. His length is prodigious – he averages nearly 318 yards off the tee to lead the Euro Tour – and on Friday he continually pounded the driver past Woods, who’d rebounded from a lackluster ballstriking effort in the morning to post seven birdies alongside Stricker.
Colsaerts earned a tour card in Europe when he was only 18, but clearly he wasn’t seasoned enough to do much with it. He muddled along for nearly a decade before finally starting to fulfill his potential, starting to find his game with stints in Australia with instructor Ken Berndt as he toned down his partying ways.
His big breakthrough came when he won the Volvo China Open in 2011, and this season he proved his mettle mano-a-mano when he defeated two former major champions and four current Ryder Cuppers (including teammate Graeme McDowell in the final) at the Volvo Match Play in Spain.
Colsaerts has seemed to know for a while that he was starting to build to something big. One veteran European photographer shared a cab with Colsaerts heading to a tournament in Thailand just a few years ago. As they pulled up to the course, Colsaerts proclaimed, “They have no idea how good I am.”
But the Ryder Cup was an altogether different stage, and Colsaerts absolutely thrived upon it, helping to earn a vital point that kept Europe within striking distance at 5-3.
Colsaerts made too many huge putts to list: an 18-footer at No. 2 that kept Europe from going 2 down; a 25-footer to win the fourth; a 22-footer at nine that gave Europe a lead; a 4-footer for eagle at 10 after a breathtaking long-iron approach; and a huge 8-footer at 15 that helped Europe regain a 2-up advantage with three to play. Colsaerts made a single bogey, at No. 12, where he sprayed his approach right, but also had a ninth birdie do a complete 360 and spin out on the third green. Curses!
Woods tried his best to answer the Belgian, but heroic birdies at 16 and 17 could not offset two great looks he failed to knock down at 15 and 18. Woods’ final effort to knot the match at 18 ran out of steam and dove left of the cup.
Afterward, all he could do was tip his cap to Colsaerts, whom Woods said “had one of the greatest putting rounds ever.” It wasn’t an empty compliment.
“When somebody like Tiger Woods looks at you and goes, ‘Great playing, man,’ you understand you’ve done something pretty good,” Colsaerts said.
Colsaerts could not remember a better day.
“It felt wonderful to be able to produce and deliver on such a big stage, with a lot of eyes on you and this unbelievable atmosphere.”
Westwood is playing in his eighth Ryder Cup, and in the past three he has accepted a veteran’s role in guiding such first-timers as Soren Hansen and Martin Kaymer. Asked if he could recall a player ever making a stronger debut than Colsaerts, he said he could not.
“No,” Westwood said. “I don’t think there has ever been a better debut than that. I can’t imagine anyone has ever made eight birdies and an eagle, and against somebody like Tiger and Steve Stricker … It’s a tough golf course, with a lot of wind blowing out there. I can’t imagine anybody’s ever shown up and done anything like that before.”
Westwood joked that when Colsaerts asked him to help read a putt on the 15th green, Westwood nearly panicked. “Why ruin it now?” Westwood asked with a laugh.
But the Belgian Bomber had done his job for Westwood and the team, and the point he’d provided Europe was much-needed in a session dominated by the Americans. The memory he left behind wasn’t bad, either.
“It was one of those amazing days,” Westwood said. “He’ll look back on that and smile.”