Monday 18 December 2017

Golf: Spirit of Seve inspires 'Medinah Miracle'

THE screenplay was written in heaven. It was directed from on-high by Seve Ballesteros and featured an eye-popping performance from Ian Poulter in the starring role.

Europe's 'Miracle at Medinah' was an epic, real-life adventure which beat anything you've ever seen on the silver screen.

Simply being there, a mere extra among a cast of tens of thousands in Chicago, was spine-tingling.

Ryder Cup matches between Europe and the US have long been intense, but last September's was the greatest of them all.

It's said there are no atheists in foxholes ... well, having watched 24 golfers go day after day into that inferno, one readily understands why so many 'believers' walk the fairways at the Ryder Cup.

Jose Maria Olazabal and all 12 of his men at Medinah have spoken at length of the inspiration they drew from the spirit of Seve.

With their outstanding defiance, they paid honour in full to the late Spaniard's memory. Especially that Sunday, as Europe performed one of the most outrageous comebacks in the history of sport.

Their 'uniform', a navy blue sweater over a white shirt, was in tribute to Seve, while every player wore his silhouette on their sleeve.

Yet Poulter had Seve in his heart on Saturday as he breathed life back into the cause.

The US led 10-6 as the sun set on the second day, but Europe was singing.

Hundreds filled the gloom around the 18th green with a joyous rendition of 'Ole, Ole, Ole' after Poulter clinched the final point of the day with an astounding five-birdie finish.

Tom Watson best described the significance of that moment after his recent election as US Ryder Cup captain for 2014.

"When Ian Poulter made those five birdies in a row on Saturday, he gave them a little breath of hope.

"It was like a cloud just appeared on the horizon. That was the harbinger for the next day," Watson said.

"When the next day came, that cloud grew into a storm and, as the scoreboard went blue midway through those first five matches on Sunday, that storm was howling."

Fittingly, Watson's words were Old Testament in tone.

For the 2012 Ryder Cup was sport on a biblical scale. Poulter's parting of the red sea that afternoon was just one act in an epic three days crammed with dramatic sub-plots and dizzying twists.

We'd many heroes, but, given the multitudes in attendance and how much strong beer was quaffed from early each morning, remarkably few villains, as the people of Chicago set a wonderful benchmark at their Ryder Cup.

Medinah gave golf 'The Greatest Story Ever Told'!

Act 1: Genesis

In the beginning, there's almost unbearable tension.

The first tee on Friday morning at every Ryder Cup is alive with anticipation, apprehension and, for those few seconds as each player prepares to strike his first shot, the most oppressive silence in sport.

Graeme McDowell, who'd applied the coup de grace at Celtic Manor, had the honour in September.

"It was a bizarre experience," he recalled. "I was actually feeling very calm and very cool until I stepped over the ball. I couldn't ignore the silence. It was deafening and made my mind go blank – very strange. I didn't put a very nice swing on it after that."

Still, McDowell and fellow Ulsterman Rory McIlroy beat Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker 1-up in that foursomes match.

Europe and the US were all-square after the opening session, Poulter and Justin Rose overcoming Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker 2&1.

After lunch, Masters champion Bubba Watson broke the ice and golf convention by urging spectators to holler and stomp as he played his first shot in the fourballs.

Around a golf course which Davis Love cleverly ordered be set up for birdies and eagles, massive galleries would be stoked by swashbuckling play from the home team, especially on Medinah's slick greens.

Rookie Keegan Bradley was a revelation. His enthusiasm acted like a powerful catalyst on Phil Mickelson and a prolific partnership developed.

They crushed Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, hitherto invincible at foursomes, on Friday morning; overpowered McIlroy and jaded-looking McDowell that afternoon; then battered Donald and Lee Westwood by a record-equalling 7&6 in the foursomes on Saturday.

Nicolas Colsaerts collected Europe's only point on Friday afternoon, stunning Woods, Stricker and even his own partner, Westwood, with eight birdies and an eagle in a 62, the best round ever by a Ryder Cup debutant.

Poulter, inexplicably rested from that second session, reappeared alongside Rose on Saturday morning, stealing Bubba's thunder by urging spectators to crank up the volume during his own tee shot.

The formidable English duo won Europe's only point in that session, so at lunch, the visitors were 8-4 behind and, it seemed, in serious trouble.

"It was very hard, to ignore the red on the board and the noise being made around the golf course," said McDowell after he and McIlroy lost by one hole to Furyk and Snedeker. "There's blood in the water and they're up for it."

Act 2: Revelation

In the space of 60 minutes on a sun-dappled Saturday afternoon, more than 10,000 spectators at Medinah's signature 17th hole rode a violent emotional switchback.

It's 208 yards across water from the elevated tee at this daunting par-three to a well-guarded green and the steep slopes on either side of the lake were packed with people, the vast majority of them sky-high with excitement.

Watson and Webb Simpson had snuffed out Rose and Francesco Molinari after just 14 holes of the afternoon's opening fourball, propelling the US into a commanding

9-4 lead.

When Dustin Johnson hit his tee shot to 27-feet at 17 and then sank the birdie putt that put himself and Matt Kuchar 1-up against Paul Lawrie and Colsaerts, the massed gallery burst into a spontaneous rendition of 'The Star Spangled Banner.'

It was loud and passionate enough to make the hairs stand to attention on the back of my red Irish neck.

When Woods, in the next group, hit his tee shot to within five feet moments later, they roared as loud as a Concorde.

Four behind Sergio Garcia and Donald through the turn, Tiger had given himself a glorious opportunity to land his fifth birdie on the back nine and drag himself and Stricker back to all-square.

Donald responded by hitting his tee shot inside two feet. To their credit, the crowd hailed the Englishman, chanting "Luuuuuuke, Luuuuuuke." Wonderful!

Woods and Donald both putted-out, the European duo clinching a precious point with par at the last, as did Johnson and Kuchar, moving the US 10-5 ahead.

Yet the 'Miracle at Medinah' was already afoot.

McIlroy set the process in motion by holing a lengthy birdie putt at 13 to cut the lead of Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson to one in the final match.

Poulter made a birdie four for half at the next and got up and down from a greenside bunker at the short, par-four 15th to square it.

Give the Englishman momentum, and he's unstoppable. At the next, Poulter rolled in a 15-footer for the birdie which put the European pair ahead for the first time.

"It was like The Hulk," McIlroy explained. "Ian gets that look in his eyes and turns into this big green putting machine – it's incredible."

Poulter holed from eight feet for his fourth successive birdie and a half at 17 and then willed his ball into the cup at 18 to clinch a precious point.

"Ian thrives at this event," said his captain. "What he did today was amazing. The way he played those holes, making those clutch putts, is the essence of the Ryder Cup."

"This Ryder Cup is not over. That's what I learned from Seve and I'm going to try to pass it to the players. It's never over until it's over."

They got the message. "There was a buzz in the team room," said Poulter. "It didn't feel like we were four behind. Everyone was calm. Everyone was cracking jokes. We felt we'd that tiny little chance."

US skipper Love "didn't put as much stock in it then, because we were four ahead. But, looking back, Poulter gave them something to believe in. I just wish he'd made four in a row, not five."

Act 3: Consternation

Most good movies have a car chase and this one's no different.

McIlroy courted disaster on Sunday morning in Chicago, but was saved from gross embarrassment by two young PGA of America transportation officials, Maggie Budzar and Erica Stoll, and local deputy chief of police Pat Rollins.

Misled by the tee times posted overnight on The Golf Channel, which were listed in East Coast Time (one hour ahead of Chicago), McIlroy believed he was off at 12.25 – until his agent Conor Ridge rang shortly before 11.0.

Still in his hotel room, 20-plus minutes by car from Medinah, McIlroy was horrified to learn he was due on the tee in 25 minutes ... if he didn't make it, Europe would forfeit the point and the Ryder Cup almost certainly would be lost.

"What am I going to do," he asked Ridge. "Get here fast," was the reply.

In the lobby McIlroy was met by Budzar, who'd already initiated a search by staff at the hotel and by Stoll at the course.

Crucially, Budzar moments earlier had seen deputy chief Patrick Rollins arrive at the hotel to make a quick check on his staff and asked him to stand by should McIlroy turn up and need to get to Medinah!

So, instead of making the 13-mile journey in a SUV driven by a Ryder Cup volunteer, McIlroy was driven by FBI-trained Rollins in his eight-cylinder, super-charged police cruiser.

Rollins, who radioed ahead to clear a route through the traffic, apologised in advance for any discomfort, then hit the road like Sebastian Vettel. He got McIlroy to Medinah in less than 10 minutes, arriving just 11 minutes before the Holywood star's tee time.

Remarkably, McIlroy went straight out and beat America's hottest player, Keegan Bradley, saying afterwards: "It's probably the best I played all week."

His guardian angel or maybe Seve was looking out for McIlroy that morning.

Olazabal, too, for the Spaniard very nearly went down in infamy as the captain who misplaced the World No 1 and lost the Ryder Cup on the same day.

Act 4: Deliverance

From early Sunday morning, 40,000-plus people flowed into Medinah like a red river. Their excitement was palpable. Chicago could smell victory. Nobody outside of the European team room gave the visitors a chance that morning.

Love and his players were confident.

"As a team, Saturday night was best," explained Brandt Snedeker.

"We had the two presidents (Bush Snr and Jnr) come in. We were four up, playing great and not one guy in the room thought Poulter had turned it around."

They were caught unaware as Europe holed putts, chips and bunker shots on Sunday.

Donald took first blood as Watson failed to live up to his first-tee bravura. Lawrie put the next point on the board, battering Snedeker 5&4. McIlroy then polished off Bradley 2&1 and when Poulter beat Simpson 2-up, it was 10-10.

The US were brilliant in pairs, but, on the Sunday, struggled on their own. Tellingly, just one of their four rookies, Dufner, took a singles point.

Rose then made it five wins in a row, brilliantly coming from one back through 16 to overcome Mickelson in a classic match.

Mickelson put down a magnificent marker for the Ryder Cup at 17, moments after going excruciatingly close to holing a chip for birdie and almost certain victory.

Rose had an 'impossible' 50-plus foot downhill putt, but hit it sweetly and his ball zeroed in on the hole like a laser-guided bomb. Birdie! All-square! Mickelson could have cursed his luck, but wore a beaming smile instead. He joined in the applause, pausing only to offer Rose a hearty thumbs-up.

It was a moment to cherish.

Rose sank his third big putt in as many holes to clinch that pivotal point with a birdie at 18. "To dig myself out of that game was incredible," he said. "Now I know how Ian Poulter feels."

He drew strength from the spirit of Seve, saying: "At 18, I glanced down at the silhouette on my sleeve and realised that's the kind of stuff he'd have done.

"He's been an inspiration for this team all week long. If something crazy happens today, we'll all be looking upwards."

Martin Kaymer, who sat down with Bernhard Langer the previous day for advice on how to escape the lethargy which enveloped him on Friday, made sure the Ryder Cup remained in European hands.

He exorcised memories of Langer's heartbreaking missed putt on Sunday at the 1991 'War on the Shore' by holing-out from six feet at the last to beat Steve Stricker.

The half point 'gifted' by Tiger to Francesco Molinari in the final game sealed the greatest Ryder Cup comeback in history.

The US had been four behind going into Sunday at Brookline, but Europe also stared down some 40,000 American diehards in Chicago.

Olazabal knew how Seve would have cherished the moment, adding poignancy to his words of gratitude he expressed to his players at the closing ceremony: "All men die, but not all men live. You have made me feel alive again this week. Thank you."

This sentiment was shared by every golfer in Europe.

Irish Independent

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