Babineau: A band of believers
Medinah, Ill. -- They wore Seve on one sleeve and their hearts on the other, which is what you get with the Band of Brothers that is the European Ryder Cup team. Always.
In years past, a European side might consist of a few stars among odd parts lying around the garage that, pieced together, somehow turned into a classic ’53 Corvette. This time was different. The Europeans had the horses, boasting four of the top five players in the world. But for two days, Team Europe was flat. Uninspired. Take away Ian Poulter, and the team was outplayed, outputted and outclassed. And failing Jose Maria Olazabal, their beloved captain.
As darkness descended on Medinah’s No. 3 course late Saturday, with the U.S. team administering a jovial 10-4 thrashing, something happened to detour the course of the 39th Ryder Cup.
Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald held on to win one four-ball match. Europe then flipped another when Poulter, alongside Rory McIlroy, puffed out his chest and closed with five consecutive birdies, burying one last 5-footer. Not since Mrs. O’Leary’s cow has one tiny spark caused so much havoc in Chicago. Europe trailed 10-6, but you’d have thought the players were leading by the time they gathered that evening.
They had two new team additions to take into singles: Hope and belief.
“Poults making that putt at 18 in the dark last night was the difference,” Donald said once the Ryder Cup safely was returned to Europe’s grasp following a breathtaking 81⁄2-31⁄2 Sunday singles run. “It gave us a huge lift.”
From there on, there was no stopping Europe, a team that seized momentum and never let go until that little 17-inch gold chalice was theirs for the seventh time in the last nine meetings. The U.S. may be 25-12-2 all-time in this little global square dance, but it sure doesn’t feel like it, does it?
A team down by four points heading into Sunday singles should be doomed; instead, Europe was dangerous. “The message that Jose has given us is, ‘Just trust yourself. Look within, and believe in yourself,’ ” said Justin Rose, who birdied his last two holes to edge Phil Mickelson, 1 up, making Europe 5-0 at the front of its Sunday lineup. “We really trusted that we had nothing to lose today.”
Rose embodied the fight in his team when he stood on the 17th tee 1 down to Mickelson. His team needed him. A half-point simply wasn’t acceptable.
Rose hadn’t putted well all week. Starting on the 16th green, he rolled in three great ones in a row. At 17, after Mickelson nearly chipped in for 2, Rose ran in a 35-footer. (Brookline, anyone?) Rose, who’d taken his putter back to his room Saturday night, said he might make that putt once in 20 tries. It’s the type of sheer magic with pressure peaking that only the Ryder Cup seems to produce.
“We were 12 guys out there today that played with heart and passion like I’ve never seen before,” Poulter said. “It was incredible.”
There’s a misconception that the Europeans want the Ryder Cup more than the Americans. Not true. The U.S. played inspired golf for its team captain, Davis Love III.
The U.S. needs the cup more, and maybe that extra burden is one straw too many. As if on cue, when everything gets tightest, the trend is this: Europe starts holing chips and sinking putts, and the U.S. suffocates under the pressure. Funny that Chicagoan Bill Murray was at Medinah. For Americans in the Ryder Cup, it’s forever “Groundhog Day.”
The Sunday turnaround wasn’t lost on a handful of European team members, vice captains and their captain who all were part of a 1999 European squad in Brookline that swallowed a similar defeat after leading 10-6 into singles.
“A lot of guys in the team room were crying that day,” Lee Westwood said, “and there’ll be a lot of guys in our room crying tonight, too. But for a different reason.”
Pure elation. The celebration around the 18th green was unbridled joy. Sergio Garcia planted a fat kiss on Poulter’s cheek. Players donned flags of their respective countries. Songs resonated loudly as several players and vice captains jumped up and down in a tight circle. Victorious human pogos.
Olazabal, mentored by the great Seve Ballesteros, correctly said this one will go down in the history books. Deservedly so. Europe had shown nothing for nearly two days but never stopped fighting. Momentum can stir the unthinkable.
Olazabal thanked his players for giving him the best week of his life.
“All men die,” he told them, his eyes moist, “but not all men live. You made me feel alive this week.”