European fight songs filled the air as dusk settled in at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club last Sunday and barely had members of the winning Ryder Cup team perched themselves on the bridge to spray champagne at their loyal fans when you could sense what the other side of the story would be: Hindsight and criticism, finger-pointing and the inevitable quest to have a scapegoat.
Assigning blame is mandatory stuff. It’s as if we need it to soothe our pain. It’s an American past-time, if you will. But to pursue such an endeavor is to overlook what sat at the heart of the 39th Ryder Cup, which was scintillating golf. Focus on the failure of the Americans to hold a lead, if you want, or scream to the heavens as you wonder why the Euros seem to have this thing figured out.
But what traveled home from Medinah were countless memories that had more to do with the golf, of which these five resonate:
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1. Was that Justin Rose coming of age?
No question, Ian Poulter was the star of the show.
But when European captain Jose Maria Olazabal tabbed the 32-year-old Rose to play in all five matches, he was making a profound statement. Rory McIlroy was the only other player to take in all five. Nice company, eh, Justin?
Olazabal granted Rose his two foursomes games with his best mate, Poulter, but he then asked the Englishman to carry Francesco Molinari in one four-ball and Martin Kaymer in another. Neither assignment went well, but it spoke volumes for the belief Olazabal had in Rose.
Rose validated that belief with a singles display that might have been the most crucial of the early wave. With a birdie-birdie start, Rose was off and running against Phil Mickelson, who did everything to win this match, and nothing to lose it.
Lefty shot 3 under and nearly made an unforgettable chip-in at the par-3 17th, yet he was helpless when Rose stood over his final three putts: A 10-footer to save par on top of Mickelson at the 16th, an unthinkable 35-footer for birdie at the 17th, and a numbing 12-footer for birdie at 18.
“I felt like Ian Poulter out there,” Rose said as he stood staring at the scoreboard near the final green. It was 11-11 at the time and the comeback still seemed improbable, so everyone beneath the blue flag kept their emotions in check.
Still, it seemed an opportune moment to ponder what Rose has done this year. A WGC win, eight top-10s in 19 starts, including a T-8 at the Masters, T-3 at the PGA and a T-2 at the Tour Championship, and now this: a breathtaking birdie-birdie finish to steal a point from Mickelson. Mark Fulcher, Rose’s caddie, absorbed the scene, took a deep breath and considered this exclamation point to a great season.
“He has grown up from potentially a great player, to a very, very exceptional player,” Fulcher said.
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2. Come on; it’s the Ryder Cup
To say the Chicago fans were well-mannered and shower them with praise is nonsense. Plenty of them washed down their bacon and eggs with beer to go watch the Saturday foursomes session, and much of what was heard was out of line.
And what a shock: the majority of it went toward Poulter.
After hooking his drive at the par-5 fifth, his ball struck a tree and came to rest perhaps 65 yards behind Bubba Watson’s ball, which prompted a beer-and-bacon guy to ask, “Hey, Poulter, did your mother drive that one?”
Their comments got nastier and came at worse times, too. Such as at the top of Poulter’s backswing at the par-4 12th, when a guy yelled, “way right.” Sure enough, the approach went way right and Poulter glared toward the gallery. Minutes later, he did all he could do to shut them up: He made a curling 12-footer to save par to keep him and Rose 2 up on Watson and Webb Simpson.
“I’ll be honest; it was brutal,” Poulter told BBC, and he wasn’t exaggerating.
But he has to know that it was brutal for the U.S. guys in 2010 at Celtic Manor in Wales and will be brutal for them in 2014 at Gleneagles in Scotland. This outrageously supportive home crowd mentality is, for better or worse, part of the fabric of the Ryder Cup.
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3. Yet sometimes, they make you laugh
The fans weren’t always mean-spirited. Quite often they were downright funny. For instance, late in that Saturday foursomes between Poulter-Rose and Watson-Simpson, the match reached the par-4 15th. It’s a reachable hole, but with water all the way down the right, Poulter wisely pulled out an iron, given that his team was 2 up.
That didn’t stop a fan from saying, “It’s not the Solheim Cup. Come on.”
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4. Anchors struggled, but how about the leadoff guys?
There has been plenty of venom sent toward Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods, the veterans at the back of the U.S. lineup who didn’t come through.
Fine, fire away.
But at what point do we stop and offer praise to the first five in the European lineup? Unless they all won, a comeback was virtually impossible. Luke Donald, Poulter, McIlroy, Rose and Paul Lawrie – in that order – went out and set the tone. Playing a combined 85 holes, they won 28 of them, lost just 16, and led for 50. Three Americans (Bubba Watson vs. Donald; Keegan Bradley vs. McIlroy; and Brandt Snedeker vs. Lawrie) never had a lead.
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5. Slow start, brilliant finish
Beaten in foursomes each morning, Donald went out Saturday afternoon and lit it up in four-ball alongside Sergio Garcia. The former No. 1 birdied five of the last 11 holes, three times to win the hole, twice to answer Woods’ magic.
It’s impossible to pick out one shot when three days, 24 players and 28 matches are involved, but for my money it was Donald’s at the par-3 17th late Saturday. Woods stuffed his tee shot, and the place went nuts. Sure, it was dramatic, but he was the first one off the tee; try being the last one to hit when an opponent has it inside of 8 feet.
But Donald coolly slammed it inside of Woods, made birdie to get the halve and stay 1 up, which is how the match ended.
Had Donald not answered Woods to win the full point, the heralded work of Poulter in the next four-ball might not have mattered.
And for an encore, all Donald did was put a clinic on and thrash Bubba Watson. Seeing the first European out be 2 up after just four holes had to do wonders for team morale down the line.