MEDINAH, Ill. – For a guy who insisted the start of his match be a raucous affair, Bubba Watson sure got jumpy with a little movement 16 holes and more than 3 1/2 hours later.
He was OK with flag-waving, feet stomping and a crescendo of cheers as he swung driver on the first tee shot, but damn that cameraman who moved slightly as Watson tried to play his shot into the 16th green during the morning foursomes.
Amazing, that Ryder Cup theater. It starts with the thermometer in triple digits – and then gets hotter.
And while several candidates wearing red, white and blue cherish the atmosphere, can anyone dispute that Ian Poulter, the one-time 4-handicap club pro from Chesfield Downs Golf Club in England, has put both arms around this biennial affair, pulled it to his chest and refused to let it go, the eyes popping out of his head and the clenched fists shaking with endless passion?
It is his.
Whether that translates into actually putting Samuel Ryder’s hardware into his hands at the conclusion of Sunday afternoon remains to be seen. But if the Europeans don’t manage to score at least eight points in Sunday’s singles and lose the cup, it won’t be traced to a lack of effort from Poulter, who was simply magnificent in a Saturday twilight after having been brilliant in a Saturday chill.
Now, it’s hard to determine whether it was after his birdie at the par-5 14th that kept him and Rory McIlroy just 1 down to Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson in the afternoon four-ball, or the birdie at the par-4 15th that squared the match. Then again, it could have come after the birdie at the par-4 16th that put his team up one, or the earth-shaking birdie at the 17th that answered Johnson’s birdie and kept the Euros in the lead.
But on second thought, maybe it was after Dufner stuffed his approach to 4 feet and birdied the 18th and Poulter stood tall and buried a matching birdie from 12 feet – and for you kids at home who don’t have a scorecard, we’re talking five consecutive birdies – that the words from earlier in the week filtered back.
What was it Justin Rose had said? Ah, yes. It was this: “He’s one of the guys who wants the ball when the clock’s running down. Obviously, all of us want that – or we think we want that. But how many (of us) really, really, really want that when it comes down to it? Ian does.”
Hyperbole from Rose? Poulter proved otherwise to put the finishing touch on a day that gave him two more wins, made him 3-0 in this Ryder Cup and 11-3 in his career. The 36-year-old Englishman was utterly electrifying at the end of his afternoon four-ball, almost as if he knew the stage belonged all to him, the last match on Medinah Country Club property.
“I don’t know,” Poulter said, when asked where the magic had come from, five straight birdies to send Dufner and Johnson to defeat and give the Europeans at least some hope into today’s singles, trailing 10-6 but still kicking. “It comes from within.”
No surprise that Poulter’s day had started nearly 11 hours earlier with a bit of a buzz. Called to the first tee for his 7:20 a.m. foursomes match with Rose against Watson and Webb Simpson, Poulter knew that Watson the day before had encouraged fans to work themselves into a frenzy even as he attempted his tee shot and Poulter – every bit the showman that Watson is – nodded his approval. Let ’em cheer, Poulter said. It’s showtime.
And, oh, how he delivered, much to the delight of his 11 teammates.
“He was incredible on the way,” McIlroy said, knowing they were 2 down as late as the 12th tee. “All the credit needs to be put on this man.”
Though he saved his best magic for late in the day, Poulter had sprinkled plenty of over Medinah’s tree-lined golf No. 3 Course earlier in the morning. He and Rose were 1 down for four holes going out when Poulter rifled a perfect drive at the par-4 ninth, then took his mate’s nifty wedge shot and buried a 10-footer to tie.
This was the first match out, seemingly played before a lot of fans who must have enjoyed a bacon-and-beer breakfast because time and time again insults were hurled his way. Fans ridiculed him for the color of his shoes (a shade of purple to match his team outfit) and his proud-of-where-I-am strut. When an errant drive kicked dead backwards off a tree and was some 65 yards behind Watson’s, a bacon-and-beer guy shouted out, “Hey, Poulter, did your mother drive?”
Nonsense, not funny, but cheers to Poulter, who ignored it, showing far more class than had been extended to him. Instead, he answered with his play. At the 11th, with Watson having made birdie from 12 feet, Poulter threw down a 10-footer to answer. Then, at the 12th, with Simpson having driven miles left and Watson having hit the second shot well right of the green and down a steep embankment, Poulter studied his shot and knew the door was open.
He just couldn’t also miss the green right.
But as he swung, a voice rung out, “way right,” Poulter flinched, and sure enough the shot flared right. There was suddenly a chance this already feisty match could become contentious or adversarial, but at the green, Poulter continued to be Poulter. He watched Rose wedge the shot back onto the green, then buried a curling 15-footer to go 2 up.
Ignoring the bacon-and-beer crowd, the barbs and the foolishness, Poulter said only that “it was tough, a bit of a doggy match at times, but that’s foursomes. You’ve just got to get it done.”
Though the Euros chopped up the par-4 16th and saw their lead trimmed to one hole, Poulter slipped home a par putt to halve the par-3 17th and then watched breathlessly with Rose as Simpson missed a birdie try. Poulter and Rose had gotten it done, their 1-up triumph the only European point in a dominating American morning.
If all that morning drama – the clutch putts at nine, at 12, at 17, the timely approach at 18 – had you thinking Poulter’s tank was empty, think again. His passion for the Ryder Cup is bottomless, and even though they had won just one hole in the first 12, “I kept saying to Rory, ‘We just need something. We just need something.’ “
He delivered something, all right.
Something utterly remarkable and singularly spectacular. Birdies on each of the last five holes, the last two coming in emphatic answer to Johnson’s brilliance at the 17th and Dufner’s clutch at the 18th. With each scintillating putt, the bug eyes got bigger, the veins popped more prominently, and the crowd roared even louder.
And the world’s best player smiled, laughed and stood in awe.
“I could have just walked into the clubhouse. It was the Poults’ show from there on in. It was just a joy to watch.”