In the last of his look backs at great Ryder Cups of the past, Rory Jiwani writes about Europe’s greatest comeback at Medinah in 2012.
After a year delay to the Ryder Cup caused by the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001, the Europeans have proceeded to dominate the competition. They completed a hat-trick of wins in 2006 at the K Club in County Kildare under Ian Woosnam by a score of 18 ½ to 9 ½, the same result as Bernhard Langer’s men achieved at Oakland Hills two years previously.
That run came to an end as Nick Faldo’s team were well beaten at Valhalla in 2008 by Paul Azinger’s outfit. But Colin Montgomerie led Europe to a narrow victory at Celtic Manor in 2010 with Graeme McDowell beating Hunter Mahan in the very last match.
In May 2011, the world of golf mourned the passing of the great Seve Ballesteros. The talismanic Spaniard, who almost single-handedly transformed the game in continental Europe, was crucial to the revitalisation of the Ryder Cup. He died of brain cancer two and a half years after having life-saving surgery to remove a malignant tumour.
His great compañero, Jose Maria Olazabal, had already been named as Europe’s captain for 2012. Olazabal, a veteran of seven Ryder Cups as a player and two as a vice-captain, was a popular choice to lead the side. He and Ballesteros’ record as a partnership of 11-2-2 remains the best in competition history.
This was a golden period for European golf. In years past, the American side would boast several players inside the top 20 of the world rankings. When the 2012 Ryder Cup came around, Europeans occupied four of the top five led by world number one Rory McIlroy.
Given that strength, Olazabal’s first move was to reduce the captain’s picks from three to two. He had one tough decision to make concerning Padraig Harrington. The Irishman had been on the last six teams and, despite two top-10 finishes in majors that year, Olazabal made Ian Poulter and Nicolas Colsaerts his wildcard picks.
Colsaerts was the only rookie in the team and became the first Belgian to play at the Ryder Cup. His world ranking was the lowest in the field, a far from shabby 35, and he came into the event in good form, Meanwhile, Poulter’s Ryder Cup record was second to none. The colourful Englishman had been the standout European in 2008 with four points in a losing cause, and weighed in with three points in the 2010 triumph.
The Americans were the more inexperienced of the two teams with four rookies including recent FedEx Cup winner Brandt Snedeker. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk provided the bulk of the knowhow for Davis Love III’s side.
Love and Olazabal were both in 1999’s infamous Battle of Brookline with partisan crowds in Boston and over-exuberant players (from both sides even if the Americans were more obvious) contributing to an event which at times overstepped the bounds of acceptability.
With Medinah Country Club a few hits of a driver from Chicago, there was the potential for similar shenanigans. But the two captains did a good job of putting on a respectful and united front before the event, while admitting that the home support would be considerable.
McDowell and McIlroy – aka G-Mac and Wee-Mac – revived their successful partnership from Celtic Manor to good effect in Friday morning’s foursomes, beating Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker on the 18th. But defeats for Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia – ending their perfect record of four from four in foursomes – and Lee Westwood and Francesco Molinari saw the United States lead, before Poulter and Justin Rose got the better of Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods 2 and 1 to make it 2-2.
Poulter was surprisingly absent from the afternoon fourballs with Olazabal, probably sticking to an initial plan, giving all 12 of his players a run-out on the opening day. Colsaerts rose to the challenge, putting superbly as he went round in 10-under to carry a below-par Westwood to victory over Woods and Stricker on the final hole.
But that was the only point Europe would score that session. Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson thumped Lawrie and Peter Hanson 5 and 4. Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley made it two wins out of two with a 2 and 1 victory over McIlroy and McDowell, and Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar beat Rose and Martin Kaymer 3 and 2. After day one, the USA led 5-3.
Things scarcely improved for the visitors on Saturday morning. Olazabal’s surprising decision to stick with Westwood backfired spectacularly as he and Donald were six down after 10 against the rampant Bradley and Mickelson, eventually going down 7 and 6. Poulter showed why he should have played on Friday afternoon as he and Rose edged home 1 up against Watson and Simpson in the top match.
But the last two matches both went the way of the Americans. Colsaerts’ hot putter deserted him as he and Garcia went down 2 and 1 to Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner, the Belgian’s tee-shot on 17 finding the water to end the contest. And McIlroy and McDowell lost again, this time to Furyk and Snedeker on the last.
With Europe 8-4 down, Olazabal needed his men to close the gap in the afternoon fourballs. Poulter recalled that his thinking was, “At some stage it will turn. They can’t keep holing 40-foot putts.” But the visitors needed to up their game considerably, and the early signs were not promising.
Poulter partnered McIlroy in the final match against Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson with Garcia and Donald taking on Woods and Stricker. Despite being paired with his good friend, Woods was on the losing side twice on Friday and seemed to be one of the few Americans failing to fire in Illinois. Sure enough, Woods and Stricker were two down after just three holes.
But Europe were struggling in the other three matches. Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson were soon two up on Rose and Molinari with Colsaerts and Lawrie just about staying in touch with Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar. And Poulter and McIlroy were two down at the turn.
The top match quickly ran away from Rose and Molinari as Simpson’s fine birdie at the short 13th put the American four up. They went on to win 5 and 4. 9-4 USA.
Suddenly, hope for the Europeans. McIlroy’s two at the 13th closed the gap to one in the bottom match. Then Kuchar and DJ made a mess of the 16th and Lawrie two-putted to put him and Colsaerts all square. Meanwhile, Woods had finally woken up on the back nine but he and Stricker still trailed Garcia and Donald by one after 14.
Then contrasting fortunes in the middle two matches. A Donald birdie restored Europe’s two-hole lead over Woods and Stricker. But DJ holed a long birdie putt on 17 to put the Americans one up with one to play against Colsaerts and Lawrie.
Poulter showed his fighting spirit on the 14th, holing a tricky five-footer to halve the hole. Then on 15, he hit a beauty out of the greenside bunker to gimme distance and Dufner missed his putt to make the bottom match was all square. That boost was welcome as Colsaerts missed his birdie chance at the last to hand another point to the home team. 10-4 USA.
Europe could not afford any more slip-ups now. They needed to win both remaining fourballs to have a prayer in Sunday’s singles. The Woods revival continued on the par-three 17th with a tee-shot to within four feet. But Donald got even closer and both holed out to send Europe down the last one up.
Cometh the hour, cometh Ian Poulter. After McIlroy three-putted on 16, his partner saved him with a wonderful left-to-right birdie putt from 20 feet followed by the now-familiar, wide-eyed, double fist-shake. Dufner missed his birdie attempt and Europe were one up in both matches on the course.
On 17, Poulter hit a wonderful tee-shot to eight feet but Zach Johnson hit a beautiful draw to half that distance. More pressure on the Englishman and yet again he responded with a putt which was never going to miss, and that fist-pumping celebration. One up with one to play.
Up ahead, a putting contest on the last to determine whether it would be half a point or a full point to Garcia and Donald. Steve Stricker had the easiest birdie chance by far after a fine short-iron to just seven feet. After three misses, the tall American had his putt to halve the match but it hit the left-edge and lipped out. 10-5 USA.
One down, one to go. Another fine Poulter iron left him with a 10-footer to guarantee Europe victory, but Dufner stiffed his approach. With Zach Johnson further away, Dufner holed out to leave Poulter with yet another pressure putt to halve the hole and win the match.
As he lined up his putt from behind the hole, Poulter saw the whole American team on the left, and the Europeans on the right. Some players might have been overawed by the gravity of the situation, but not Ian James Poulter. Once again, he stroked the ball into the middle of the cup. 10-6 USA.
On reflection, Poulter said, “To hole that putt, to turn round and see my guys go absolutely bananas was just going to be the best feeling. To go in, alright, four points behind… but we won the last two points of the day to just sow that little bit of doubt in the Americans’ minds: ‘At 10-4, it’s over. Hang on a minute, it’s 10-6. It’s possible at 10-6 for there to be a comeback.’”
Wearing navy sweaters in honour of Ballesteros (who always wore navy for the final round) over white polo shirts bearing a silhouetted image of the late great Spaniard on the left sleeve, Europe needed some Seve-style escapology to retain the trophy. The United States came back from 10-6 down at Brookline in 1999 and both team captains took lessons from the team selections that fateful Sunday. Olazabal, as Ben Crenshaw did 13 years previously, loaded the top order while Love, unlike Mark James, did the same.
What you don’t need on a day when everything needs to go right is your best player missing his tee-time. That almost happened as Rory McIlroy had his phone set to Eastern Standard Time instead of Central Standard Time making him an hour late. Fortunately, he got a speedy lift in an unmarked police car and made it to the course 10 minutes before facing Keegan Bradley. A chorus of “Central time zone” greeted the Ulsterman as he teed off in the third match.
The top match saw Luke Donald tee it up against Bubba Watson and this was something of an inspired move with Europe needing to start quickly. Donald is a local hero having been to Northwestern University just 20km away and the crowd, while not completely on his side, certainly was not against him. He went two up after three holes, four up after 12, and despite a late Bubba fightback, claimed a 2 and 1 win.
The next three matches were tight but Paul Lawrie was taking Brandt Snedeker to the woodshed in match five. Three up at the turn soon became five up, and then a 5 and 3 victory to reduce the overall deficit to just two points. Game most definitely on.
Further down, most of the matches were close with the exception of Jason Dufner leading Peter Hanson four up at the turn. Zach Johnson was also in control of his match against Graeme McDowell, but where were the other two and a half points going to come from?
Phil Mickelson was one up on Justin Rose after 16 holes in what was one of the finest matchplay contests ever seen. The pair exchanged birdies all the way but it looked like the Americans would come out on top. ‘Lefty’ thought he had holed his chip for birdie at the short 17th, but then Rose did hole his long birdie putt from the fringe to square the match.
The European supporters’ “Ole, Ole, Oles” were increasing in volume and regularity as the “U, S, A” chants started to sound a little worried. Europe had already drawn level with Poulter beating Webb Simpson 2 up, and McIlroy seeing off Bradley 2 and 1. But Dustin Johnson defeated Nicolas Colsaerts 3 and 2 to put USA 11-10 up making the Rose-Mickelson contest a pivotal one.
Mickelson missed the green on 18, but Rose left himself a 12-footer to win the hole and give Europe victory in the first five matches. In it dropped and suddenly Olazabal and his men believed that the most unlikely of victories was possible.
But Zach Johnson completed a 2 and 1 win over McDowell to make it 12-11 and the Americans were on course for victory with Jim Furyk one up after 16 against Sergio Garcia, Dufner two up after 15 against Hanson, and Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods all square in the bottom two matches.
Furyk beat Garcia in the singles at Brookline in 1999 and he thought he had gone two up with two to play on 16 but somehow his putt stayed out.
He then found the sand at the short 17th gifting Garcia an opportunity to draw level. The Spaniard’s birdie putt was close enough but the American had a putt from similar range to the 16th to earn a half. He missed it and Europe had drawn level in another match.
Lee Westwood made it 12-12 as he finally came good against Matt Kuchar. And Furyk’s tee-shot into the sand on 18 left Garcia with a sniff of putting Europe ahead. Furyk hit well past the pin leaving himself plenty to do, but he got to within five feet and looked like securing a half as Garcia two-putted.
However, another missed putt saw Furyk down on his haunches and Garcia – showing great respect and maturity – removed his cap and walked over to shake hands with his opponents before celebrating a vital point for Europe.
Dufner completed victory over Hanson to make it 13-13 and it would all come to the last two matches on the course. Steve Stricker missed his par putt on the 17th, but Kaymer made no mistake and he had the trophy-retaining point within reach coming down the last.
The penultimate match took on even more importance for Europe as Molinari missed a par putt on 17 to go one down. And it was advantage Kaymer as he found the heart of the green while Stricker went long just as Furyk had done 15 minutes earlier.
Stricker’s putt never looked like coming back to the hole and he left himself eight feet for par. But it meant Kaymer had two putts to retain the Ryder Cup. The German hovered over his strike for longer than usual and it went on and on and on six feet past. Stricker put the pressure on by holing out to a big cheer from the crowd.
The destiny of the trophy rested on Kaymer’s shoulders. In normal circumstances, it was a simple putt but the German had not had the best of weeks and this was no ordinary situation. It was about the same distance as Bernhard Langer’s decisive miss at Kiawah Island in 1991. But this time it was ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ as Kaymer rolled the ball into the middle of the hole to complete ‘The Miracle of Medinah’.
Olazabal looked to the heavens, thought of his old mate Seve, and then celebrated with his players. Europe went on to win the match 14 ½ – 13 ½ as Woods missed a three-footer before sportingly conceding a putt of similar length to Molinari for a half-point each.
Europe matched USA’s final-day comeback at Brookline but this was arguably more Lazarus-like as they had been 10-4 down on Saturday afternoon. But for Poulter’s magical final four holes on Saturday, it would almost certainly never have happened.
Olazabal proclaimed his tearful embrace with Poulter and other members of the team afterwards as “the happiest moment of his life, period”. And I defy you to get through his Medinah Memories interview (below) without shedding a tear or two.
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.