A thrilling ride to the top

The memory of Seve Ballesteros inspired Europe to chart an incredible comeback story in Ryder Cup
Last Updated 06 October 2012, 15:39 IST

Stupendous comeback or stupefying collapse? Surely some potent blend of both was required to produce this latest Ryder Cup suitable for downloading or deleting (you know which camp you are in).

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In Europe and to a much lesser degree in the United States, they are already calling what happened here amid the tall trees El Milagro de Medinah, or the Miracle at Medinah.

The label is likely to stick. Alliteration is tough to resist, and the term captures the wide-eyed spirit of the European team’s Champagne-soaked reaction to its 14-1/2-to-13-1/2 comeback victory over the United States. It also dovetails with the team members’ collective sense that some higher force was at work as they played for the memory of former European star and captain Seve Ballesteros, who died of a brain tumor last year.

“Seve, Seve, Seve, Seve, Seve,” the European player Justin Rose said on the 18th green in the heady – no, delirious – moments after victory. “Oh my goodness. Oh my God. I mean, we’re in shock. We wanted to believe. We really wanted to believe, but we weren’t under any illusions about how hard it was going to be. Four points back on a golf course made for them.”

True enough. But what happened at Medinah was no miracle even if a bit of alchemy was involved. The Europeans, after all, have dominated the modern era of the Ryder Cup and have now won five of the last six competitions and seven of the last nine. Though this was clearly the most surprising of their many victories as they rallied from that 6-10 final-day deficit on the road, it was also the latest example of the Ryder Cup’s continuing capacity to transform certain European golfers, for the space of a three-day weekend, into pressure-proof world beaters.

It has been happening for years as men like Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie, never capable of winning a major title on their own, turned into steely-eyed closers with the Cup for inspiration.

It happened again in Medinah as Ian Poulter and Rose, neither of whom has won a major championship, produced the kind of brilliance for their team that they have yet to produce on their own.

“Major winner! Major winner!” was the chant-cum-taunt from the crowd as Poulter came out to play his singles match Sunday against Webb Simpson, the reigning US Open champion.

That might have unsettled more bashful characters, but with Poulter, it was throwing chum in the water. This was the same man who, on Saturday morning, had decided to upstage the showboating American Bubba Watson on the first tee by calling for the thousands of fans to cheer while he was hitting his tee shot, just as Watson had done the previous morning and was about to do again.

Golf may never be quite the same (we will see about Watson, who lost the opening singles match Sunday to Luke Donald to start the European train rolling).

Rose later holed a 40-foot, or 12-metre, putt on 17 as he rallied to beat Phil Mickelson. Martin Kaymer then rolled in the Cup-clinching 5-foot putt to beat Stricker.

There can be no doubt that Poulter, the 36-year-old with the working-class English accent and spiky coiffure, was the catalyst in chief. He is now based in Florida and, like many of his European teammates, plays much of his golf on the more lucrative US PGA Tour. But he clearly still gets a perpetual thrill out of foiling Americans, including Simpson, the major winner, on Sunday.  Poulter won all four of his matches at Medinah, his body quaking and his eyes bulging after birdies to such a degree that one feared he might eventually require medical attention.

“It’s a passion I have,” said Poulter, who now has a 12-3 Ryder Cup record. “It’s a passion I’ve seen at the Ryder Cup for years and years as a kid growing up, and it’s something that comes from within.”

So much so that his teammates joked that they had changed the European team selection policy, which currently has 10 men qualifying and two being selected by the captain. “We have actually revised the qualification for next time,” said Lee Westwood. “It’s nine spots, two picks and Poults.”

Whatever happens at the next Ryder Cup in 2014 in Gleneagles, Scotland, Jose Maria Olazabal did well to use one of his captain’s picks on Poulter. There is an exaggerated cult of the captain in Ryder Cup: The players, after all, are the ones out there making and missing the putts and the tee shots across the lake.

But in the final balance, Olazabal not only got lucky; he played his cards more adroitly than his American counterpart – the gentlemanly, but perhaps too consensual, Davis Love III.

Olazabal, a proud and emotional man, found the words after the victory to tell his players what it meant to him. “All men die, but not all men live,” he said to them at the closing ceremony. “And you made me feel alive again this week.”

Many a team effort has been dedicated to the memory of the departed, but Olazabal – Ballesteros’s friend, compatriot and longtime Ryder Cup partner – took the linkage to an unusual level, putting Ballesteros’s silhouette on golf bags and shirt sleeves and weaving him into his public and private speeches.

It seemed to make a difference. Rose, for one, said he had looked down at his sleeve for inspiration and reassurance on the 18th hole.

The Europeans still could have – and probably should have – lost, of course. Instead, they have another warm Ryder Cup memory to fire up future Montgomeries and Poulters. And Sunday night, after the ceremonies and the interviews, Olazabal sat in a golf cart at Medinah in the dark with the Ryder Cup still securely in his grip.

(Published 06 October 2012, 15:39 IST)

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