Babineau: Suddenly, some hope for Europe

Europe team captain Jose Maria Olazabal (center) watches alongside Luke Donald (left) and Sergio Garcia (right) on the 18th green as Ian Poulter drained a 15-footer to win his match against the U.S.

Europe team captain Jose Maria Olazabal (center) watches alongside Luke Donald (left) and Sergio Garcia (right) on the 18th green as Ian Poulter drained a 15-footer to win his match against the U.S.

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MEDINAH, Ill. – Luke Donald looked like a man who just had the weight of the Chicago skyline removed from his shoulders. His game had sputtered in an embarrassing Saturday morning rout, when he and fellow Englishman Lee Westwood didn’t even make it to the 13th tee. In the Saturday afternoon four-ball session, he and Sergio Garcia had squandered nearly all of a 4-up lead.

Tiger Woods was roaring and Europe was sinking quickly at the 39th Ryder Cup, where the loudest roars for the visitors were saved for missed putts. And then, in less than an hour’s time, after the sun had ducked down behind the trees and tall shadows began to fill the fairways at Medinah’s No. 3 course, the Euros awoke. They finally showed something.

First it was Donald and Garcia holding off a back-nine charge from Woods and Steve Stricker, the key moment arriving when Donald answered Woods’ great approach into the 179-yard 17th hole, stuffing a 7-iron to 18 inches after Woods had stuck his tee shot to 4 feet. And then Europe’s own Ryder Cup Clark Kent, Ian Poulter, stepped into a phone booth, hopped out and made five closing birdies alongside World No. 1 Rory McIlroy to flip a 2-down deficit with six holes to play. Poulter’s final birdie secured a 1-up victory for the Euros and a 2-2 result in the session.

And suddenly, for the first time in these matches, despite trailing by a daunting 10-6 score going into Sunday singles, Europe possessed something in its palm that it hadn’t really held all week: Momentum. And that alone can harvest something else the team seemed to have so little of midday on Saturday: Hope.

The Donald-Garcia four-ball victory – the first point of the week for either player – kept Woods and Stricker, who entered this match considered the Americans’ most formidable team, pointless in three matches. And when Poulter came through with a 15-foot birdie putt at the last, topping American Jason Dufner, Europe had another full point against an American duo (Dufner-Zach Johnson) that had yet to lose.

A packed house of 40,000 not only was quieted, but suddenly harbored seeds of doubt about a Sunday victory for the U.S. being such a sure thing.

“It’s tough out here,” said Donald, an Englishman who went to Northwestern and makes his home in the city. “It’s a loud crowd. We haven’t had any momentum. They’ve been holing the putts, they’ve been … they’re playing better than us, you know? And we needed to fight at the end there. You just never know when digging deep like that can make a difference. It’s certainly going to lift us come tonight and tomorrow.”

As for Poulter, he is a man inspired when playing under the colors of Europe, and has proved to be a real match-play pest for the Americans. He relishes both the format and the event, and once again on Saturday, he rose to a different level, reeling off birdies on the final five holes as Europe put its nose ahead in the final four-ball match on the course. McIlroy joked that after he had birdied 13 to give the Euros a spark, he could have walked to the clubhouse. The rest of the afternoon was “The Poults Show.”

“I surprise myself,” admitted Poulter, who is 3-0 in these matches and now 11-3 in four Ryder Cups. “I mean, match play; I love the fight of it. You get to stare your opponent straight in the face, and sometimes that’s what you need to do.”

After the triumph, as Poulter stood off the 18th green with his arm around McIlroy, teammate Justin Rose approached the pair and said, “You may be No. 1 in the world, Rors, but that’s the No. 1 player in the Ryder Cup standing next to you.”

The Europeans were jubilant around the 18th green, and you’d have thought they were leading 10-6 and not trailing. But that’s how bleak things had been through the better part of four full sessions, and only the late run could deliver any realistic shot on Sunday.

“The whole team is enjoying that turnaround,” Rose said. “It gives us a little bit of belief. We went from 10-4 to 10-6 and there’s a glimmer of hope. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; but we all know what happened at Brookline (Mass., in 1999, when the Americans rebounded from 10-6 to win), and what an epic day that was.”

Olazabal was there at Brookline that day as a competitor, and remembers it vividly. He remembers the Americans making a charge at the front of the lineup; still can see himself on that 17th green when his opponent, Justin Leonard, holed the 45-footer that would clinch the cup; and recalls a very somber European team room afterward. He said more than half the players were crying, him included.

How he’d love to feel the other side of that equation on Sunday at Medinah. Thanks to some heroics from his final two pairings on Sunday, and two hard-fought points Europe was able to land, his team at least has a fighting chance. Leading the way at the top of the lineup will be two key contributors from Saturday: Donald, who'll take on Bubba Watson in the opening singles match, and Poulter, who'll play Webb Simpson.

Olazabal planned to share a lesson that his mentor Seve Ballesteros, whose favorite colors (navy and white) the Euros will don on Sunday, when he met with his players Saturday night. No, he wouldn't go so far as to say he's "got a feeling." But there is optimism.

“Of course we have a tough task ahead,” Olazabal said, “but it's not over – as simple as that.”

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