LAS VEGAS – Days after that fateful Sunday in Chicago, we are still asking the question: Was it the “Medinah Miracle” or the “Medinah Massacre”?
Put another way: Did Europe simply beat the U.S. again in the Ryder Cup or did the Americans beat themselves?
Ultimately, any second-guessing focuses on what the U.S. team did Sunday in winning only 3 1/2 of 12 points in singles matches to lose, 14 1/2-13 1/2, and eventually those doubts shift to American captain Davis Love III.
The American who didn’t hit a shot is on the hot seat after his team lost a four-point lead from Saturday night.
Love was the one who sat Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley in the Saturday afternoon four-ball when they were hot coming out of the morning session.
Love was the one who sent Tiger Woods back out onto Medinah (Ill.) Country Club’s No. 3 course with a struggling Steve Stricker.
Why was Woods last in the 12 singles matches, ultimately rendering his play meaningless? And why did Love opt for a back-right hole location on the demanding par-3 17th, a hole that swung many of the matches from the U.S. to Europe?
On a warm Tuesday here, Love was doing the same as so many observers of last week’s 39th Ryder Cup, asking himself what went wrong and why.
“I don’t get mad at whoever is writing articles saying we should have done this, should have done that, because as soon as we get done, we all go inside and we talk about the shots that guys hit; can you believe this guy did that and that guy did that,” Love said after a nine-hole practice round for this week’s Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals Open, in which he will play his first competitive tournament in more than a month. “What’s hard for me is why you would second‑guess the first two days. I can see second‑guessing Sunday, because we got pounded. But we pounded them the first two days.”
It’s a fair observation. The U.S. rolled in the first four sessions, leading 5-3 after Day 1 and 10-6 after Day 2. The outcome appeared to be certain but obviously wasn’t.
In many discussions since his selection as captain, Love had talked with the only victorious U.S. Ryder Cup captain this century, Paul Azinger.
Azinger had his “pod” system, an idea rooted in the Navy SEALs’ training program. Azinger would group four players together so they could be interchangeable within their group. The thinking was that the pod would breed support and familiarity.
Love used a similar philosophy, but instead of three groups of four, he went with six groups of two.
In hindsight, that might have been a mistake, specifically in the Mickelson-Bradley pairing. Mickelson wanted to sit out the Saturday four-ball. The agreement was struck before the matches, and Mickelson wanted Love to stick to the plan.
So what about Bradley playing Saturday afternoon without Mickelson?
“Yeah, we thought about that,” Love said of possibly pairing Bradley with Woods. “We thought about that a lot. That was our Plan B for that day, to take Strick out and put Keegan in. But Tiger and Keegan hadn’t even played together, you know. I didn’t think much about it. You think about it now: (ITAL)Does that make Keegan nervous? How well does he know Tiger? How many times has he played with him?(UNITAL) You could have asked him that. How would you do with Tiger? Go back and look at your chart and see if he listed Tiger as one of the guys he wanted to play with. Who wouldn’t want to play with Tiger?
In the end, Love did none of those things but instead sent Woods our with Stricker and saw his best team (on paper) lose all three matches, something Love never would have imagined earlier in the week.
The loss also pumped up Europe and gave the visitors the hope from which they would feed for the Sunday comeback.
Ian Poulter made five consecutive birdies as he and Rory McIlroy rallied to defeat Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson in four-balls, 1 up.
“It could have been the first Ryder Cup ever that it was over on Saturday, where there’s no way they could win,” Love said. “They would have had to win every match (Sunday).”
Poulter’s heroics gave the Europeans hope. When they saw the pairings for Sunday, their optimism was buoyed further.
Love knew that European captain Jose Maria Olazabal would front-load his singles pairings to produce early victories. Yet after two days of flawless execution of the U.S. plan, Love didn’t have a solid strategy for the singles.
“I kind of thought, put a couple big guys up front and a couple big guys in the back,” Love said of his philosophy. “But if anything, I was overconfident that everyone was playing well and it really didn’t matter. When guys started saying, ‘I want to go first; I want to go last,’ we just kind of led ourselves into that lineup.”
On Saturday afternoon, all of the U.S. players and assistant captains weighed in as to where they wanted to play, with the exception of Brandt Snedeker and Jason Dufner. The fast guys – Bubba Watson and Snedeker among them – go out first because they are fast.
Woods, Stricker and Jim Furyk in the back because they are the solid veterans who can backstop if anything goes wrong. It all sounded so good on Saturday night. Under the pressure of Ryder Cup Sunday, it didn’t look so good almost immediately.
Love got early calls on his radio from assistants Scott Verplank and Jeff Sluman (Fred Couples wouldn’t use a radio) seeing players struggling and asking the captain to come put out the fire.
“ ‘You’ve got to get over to Webb (Simpson); he looks panicked. You’ve got to get to Bubba; he’s not doing well,’ ” Love said, recalling his assistants’ pleas. “ ‘You’ve got to get over and talk to Jim.’ If those guys can tell that they’re panicking, they’re panicking.”
The Americans’ passion from Friday and Saturday was replaced with bewilderment as the Europeans started their comeback.
“What could I have done differently to make them more comfortable is really what it boils down to,” Love said in his final analysis. “Did we put the order out there in a way that made the guys, when it went bad, uncomfortable?”
And for the possibility of Woods going first, Woods asked to be in the back – not necessarily the last guy. After Watson, Simpson, Bradley and Mickelson had been the major point-getters, even Woods wanted one or more of them to bring it home in the end.
Love never thought the outcome would be in doubt for Woods’ match to matter, even when the Euros had won the first five matches. The Americans still had Dufner, Mickelson and Furyk with leads, and Stricker and Woods – Love thought – would pull out their matches. Love still thought that 16 points was possible at that point, but then the 1995 collapse at Oak Hill entered his mind.
“I got that Lanny (Wadkins, the U.S. captain) feeling, like I walked up to Lanny, I think it was in 18 fairway after I won my match, and I said, ‘What’s going on, Lanny?’ He goes, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Love recalled as the U.S. team that had a two-point lead entering Sunday’s singles session lost 14 1/2-13 1/2. “’ I can’t believe this is actually happening.’ “
“It’ll always be a sting of losing,” Love said.