Tuesday 20 March 2018

Match made in heaven for Europe's finest

Jose Maria Olazabal's team capitalised on every American error to conjure a golfing miracle, writes Dermot Gilleece

'Jose Maria Olazabal, still the sorcerer's apprentice, invoking the memory of his lost friend'
'Jose Maria Olazabal, still the sorcerer's apprentice, invoking the memory of his lost friend'

It was the ultimate matchplay masterclass, a gripping battle which seems destined to become an iconic point of reference in sporting encounters for years to come. And, as a very special blessing, Ryder Cup 2012 will be remembered not for bitterness or bad manners, but for passion, bravery and remarkable grace under pressure.

The climactic minutes at Medinah last Sunday were utterly compelling, like nothing previously witnessed in this endlessly beguiling creation. One could picture devotees and heroes of other sports feeling like intruders into personal grief, while unable to resist the raw emotion of elite players being stripped bare by the intensity of battle.

All of which became possible not through the contrived attachment of huge financial rewards, but through the simple strengths and weaknesses of the human condition.

There was the innate decency of US skipper Davis Love, successfully hiding tortured thoughts of what he might have done differently. And of European counterpart Jose Maria Olazabal, still at heart the sorcerer's apprentice, invoking the memory of his lost friend.

Given the current strength of the American game, it seems remarkable that they should be faced with another Ryder Cup inquest, yet we shouldn't be all that surprised. I'm reminded of Tom Lehman after months of analysing his team's crushing defeat at The K Club in 2006. "Sure, America's got some seriously good players, but it takes 12 guys to win a Ryder Cup," he said. "Maybe you need guys who really believe it's a team game."

There wasn't much evidence of the team ethos in the extraordinary decision by Tiger Woods to concede Francesco Molinari an eminently missable putt of close on three feet on the final green. We're told that Woods didn't see it as having any real significance in the overall scheme of things. That a tied match wasn't preferable to an American defeat. Amazing.

A relatively recent addition to the golfing terrain of Florida is a course named 'The Concession'. There, Tony Jacklin collaborated with Jack Nicklaus by way of commemorating the famous two-footer which the Bear conceded to his British rival on the final green of the Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale in 1969. Since it gave Britain and Ireland a very welcome tied match, everybody was happy.

What are the chances, I wonder, of Woods and Molinari collaborating on a similar venture in Italy, say, to mark last Sunday's concession? Quite slim, you'd have to conclude.

Then there was Love's curious approach to his singles order. By his own admission, he placed Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson, and Steve Stricker and Woods in successive matches, with a view to recreating the togetherness they had enjoyed as partners on Friday and Saturday.

If anything, it served only to suggest a dependence on each other in a situation where they would be very much on their own. The only time I saw such a ploy work was at Oakland Hills in 2004 when Pádraig Harrington's wife Caroline had the idea that her husband and Paul McGinley should be played in successive matches, so as to capitalise on what would become an extended Irish gallery.

When I asked Lehman if he would have changed anything, he replied: "Sure, but I don't know how you fix it. As Americans, being so accustomed to strokeplay and having so little experience of matchplay, especially in a team situation, it's my opinion that when the pressure comes on, we revert to what we're comfortable with.

"I lost count of the times our guys would be going for it and then suddenly played like they were in the US Open. The strokeplay, 'I'm-going-to-get-my-par' mentality. The Europeans, on the other hand, were hitting every shot at the flag and when things start going your way, those shots end up stiff. It's tough to beat a guy who's hitting it close every time and making his share of putts."

The cut and thrust of matchplay golf certainly didn't suit the ordered mind of Nicklaus, who was far more comfortable with strokeplay. And even the more experienced US team members played very differently on Sunday than they had done when feeding off each other in pairs combat.

Jonny Sexton, the Leinster and Ireland outhalf, was among those heroes of other sports who spent last weekend captivated by events at Medinah. He did so in the company of relatives and friends down in Kerry, his father's place.

"It's hard to put the experience into words," he says. "I saw passion and self-belief. And momentum became massive, like in the Heineken Cup final against Northampton (2011 in Cardiff, where Leinster came from 22-6 down at half-time to win 33-22). When you get on a roll like that and everything is going your way, it's like you're unstoppable. And seeing the way things were building through Sunday for Europe, I sensed they were going to do it.

"But it was crazy. One of the best sporting performances I've ever seen. With pressure piling on the Americans as matches slipped away, it seemed that all the passion and self-belief in the world wouldn't have been able to stop the slide. As an awareness increased that it just wasn't going to be their day, what they desperately needed was a rain-delay or some sort of break to allow them to regroup, like you see quite a lot in tennis. With a rain-break or half-time in the golf, there would have been the opportunity to regroup. In the Northampton match, a lot of their momentum was stopped by the half-time break while we sorted out things. Similarly, if the Americans had a chance to sit down and consider their position midway through the singles, the outcome might have been different."

As it was, the six-handicap member of Ballybunion could imagine the younger players on the team looking at Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk at the bottom of the order and thinking increasingly "Maybe the captain's afraid Europe will win the top four or five matches and this is going down to the wire." As he put it: "Momentum can have that effect."

From my own perspective, I was surprised not to see the still menacing presence of Woods at the top of the order. And, interestingly, where Stricker was beaten by Martin Kaymer at number 11 last Sunday, he lost to Poulter at number 10 in Valhalla four years ago, when the victorious American skipper Paul Azinger had Ben Curtis and Chad Campbell at 11 and 12. Of course on that occasion, Woods was unavailable due to knee surgery.

Sexton went on: "If I could play golf to that level, it's something I would really relish. The size of the galleries, the noise and the pressure. Hearing Lee Westwood telling Matt Kuchar he was shaking so much that he could understand why he wouldn't concede him an 18-inch putt for the match on the 16th. It is definitely something you'd want to be part of, though it would be seriously tough on the nerves.

"There were shots you could never imagine players of that quality hitting. I was nervous just watching them, so you could imagine how they must have been feeling. I believe people will be talking about it for years.

"Even a few of the rugby lads who wouldn't watch a lot of golf were saying it was like watching a documentary of something that happened 20 years ago. Almost surreal."

Then he made the telling point: "Where Europe knew they had to go out and win it, maybe individual Americans thought the job was effectively done and if they lost their match, someone else would step in. Maybe they were wishing it home."

He went on: "Joe Schmidt (Leinster's coach) frequently tells us that it's easy to sit there the week of a big game and hope you'll win. Whereas you should be thinking about the process of making it happen. You can't be hoping we get a try here, or maybe Brian O'Driscoll will get us out of a hole. We're repeatedly warned against thinking that way. Maybe that's the trap the Americans fell into."

When the US overcame the same deficit to win at Brookline in 1999, much was made of how their skipper Ben Crenshaw, a keen golf historian, would have been aware that Francis Ouimet, the amateur winner of the 1913 US Open, lived directly across from the 17th hole at The Country Club.

Then we heard that Crenshaw had dreamed that the 17th would play a pivotal role in the destination of the Ryder Cup. Which, of course, it did, with Justin Leonard sinking a most improbable 45-foot birdie putt there en route to victory over Olazabal.

Last weekend, McGinley had what might be described as more an artistic concept of victory than a dream. And he told Olazabal about it, saying in the locker-room on Sunday morning: "If Seve is in heaven, trying to write a script with the best Hollywood scriptwriter, and he's asked what way he would want Ollie to win a Ryder Cup, it would be that for two days you get battered, blitzed by birdies and good golf, but your team just hangs on by the skin of its teeth.

"Then you get a character like Poulter as the main guy to keep you just within touching distance. Then you come strong and win in the last match. That's what he'd write for Seve and maybe that's what our script is today."

The vice-captain added: "Honest to God, I said that to him in the locker room just before we went out. Just the two of us." And it's actually more credible than Crenshaw's yarn.

Meanwhile, life on tour goes on, and Rory McIlroy -- he of a preference for Eastern Standard Time in the US -- and Woods continue to rake in handsome appearance fees. They will be doing so from Tuesday to Friday in Turkey this week in a special eight-man tournament called the Turkish Airlines World Golf Finals, aimed at helping that country land the 2020 Olympic Games.

Joining them are Justin Rose, Donald, Westwood, Simpson, Hunter Mahan and Charl Schwartzel, with $1.5 million going to the winner and $300,000 to the last man home.

These are indeed extraordinary times, for when the majority of these same tournament professionals were delivering so much thrilling entertainment at Medinah, they were doing it for nothing. Which is probably the wildest imagining of all.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport