Column: Losing the Ryder Cup? Unthinkable

Associated Press  |  Last updated October 01, 2012

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL - MAY 07: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland putts on the 18th hole during the second round of THE PLAYERS Championship held at THE PLAYERS Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass on May 7, 2010 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
The Europeans had just begun to celebrate their improbable and delightfully sweet Ryder Cup win when Rory McIlroy and U.S. captain Davis Love III ran into each other amid the boisterous scene just off the 18th green. ''Glad you could make it on time,'' Love said, drawing a laugh from McIlroy. Getting there on time wasn't a problem for the Americans. They were there early, enjoying their final day as a team together, maybe even getting in a few last pingpong matches. They just didn't show up to play. Maybe it was complacency. The U.S. almost always wins the singles matches, and with a 10-6 lead going into the final day it was time to start preparing victory speeches and choose the kind of champagne they wanted to spray on each other. Losing the Ryder Cup? Unthinkable. Well, almost. Love himself was up late the night before thinking about 1999, when he was a member of the U.S. team that staged a memorable comeback at Brookline to win a Ryder Cup everyone had already given to the Europeans. He thought about it again when he woke up at 6:15 a.m. on the one Ryder Cup morning everyone was supposed to sleep in a bit. ''I know what we felt like going into it, and the stunning defeat that they had that day,'' Love said. ''We knew that they remembered that, as well. Exact same score.'' The urgency seemed to be lost on his players. After having their way with the Europeans the first two days, there was no indication they thought the singles matches would be any different. Especially not at home, where comebacks like the one at Brookline just don't happen for the visiting team. Except these weren't just any ordinary visitors. They proved it the late afternoon before, when Ian Poulter made them believe anything was possible when he birdied the last five holes to pull out a point in near darkness that the Americans were already putting up on their board. Yes, they were down. But they were pumped. ''The whole atmosphere of the team changed last night,'' Luke Donald said. To change the atmosphere on the course, though, Europe had to get something going early. Both sides knew it, and it was little secret that European captain Jose Maria Olazabal would frontload the lineup to put his stars out first in the hope they could turn things around. Love could have countered him with Phil Mickelson, or even Tiger Woods. Instead, he chose the jittery and emotional Bubba Watson to lead off against Donald, one of the coolest characters you'll find in golf. The results were predictable. The best part of Watson's day came on the first tee when he got the crowd to cheer wildly during his swing. After that he went through the motions until he finally realized on the 15th hole that the next hole he didn't win would be his last. Keegan Bradley followed two groups behind him, ready to tilt things the U.S. way after two days of winning - and celebrating - with partner Phil Mickelson. But without his on-course BFF he didn't seem to have the same spark as McIlroy - who had to commandeer a ride from a state trooper just to get to the first tee on time - and the best player in the world took him down without even warming up. ''I thought it was a great plan,'' Love said. ''The first two teams that were supposed to win didn't win. It didn't work.'' Not all great plans do work. As Mike Tyson always liked to say, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, and the punch the Americans took came when the Europeans won the first five matches of the day. The rout was over. Now the Americans were nervously looking at scoreboards, never a good thing in the Ryder Cup. ''When I went past the board at No. 10 tee, saw a lot of blue up on the board, started doing the math,'' Steve Stricker said, when asked when he first noticed things were amiss. ''Kind of figured that it was going to come down to Tiger or I in the last two groups.'' Love had a contingency plan for that, too. He had hand-picked Stricker and Jim Furyk to be on the team, certain they would be the backbone of the team, the veteran players he could count on when things got tough. When that didn't work - Stricker and Furyk both coughed it up on the final two holes - he had Woods to finish things up. The only thing was, things were all finished by then. Woods stood helplessly in the 18th fairway, iron in hand, watching as Martin Kaymer sank the winning putt and the celebration began. Woods and Francesco Molinari had to play over the celebrants to finish out their match, with Woods whiffing a 3-footer to give Europe its final 14 1/2-13 1/2 margin. ''You come here as a team and you win or lose as a team, and it's pointless to even finish,'' Woods said. The record books will show it as a collapse of epic proportions, though the U.S. players insisted they all played well. Furyk went as far as saying that even his opponent, Sergio Garcia, would agree he was outplayed, even if the scoreboard didn't show it. If they were in denial, it's hard to blame them. A day that had started with such promise had gone bad so fast it was difficult to digest it all properly. The comparisons will all be to 1999 because the scores were all so similar. The only thing missing were the thousands of wildly cheering fans, though the European fans who were there sang and cheered and drank well into the night. ''That was fun,'' Furyk said of Brookline. ''This was pretty miserable.'' Proof, perhaps, that turnaround isn't always such fair play. --- Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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