There, in the autumn gloaming of a suburban Chicago Sunday night, stood Davis Love III. In front of him stood NBC's Jimmy Roberts. The question hung in the air, while all around them, European golfers celebrated the greatest win in Ryder Cup history – at the expense of Love's gobsmacked Americans.
"Davis," Roberts asked, "if you had to do it over again, would you do anything different?"
In the split-second it took to answer the question, the following images raced through Love's mind: Captain's pick Steve Stricker missing a par putt on the 17th hole, gifting the hole to Europe's Martin Kaymer … captain's pick Jim Furyk finishing bogey-bogey to blow a 1-up lead over Sergio Garcia on the 17th tee … Tiger Woods, match irrelevant, bringing up the rear on an already-decided Ryder Cup … Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, hotter than lava, sitting out Saturday's afternoon sessions … Love selecting two over-40 friends, Furyk and Stricker, as captain's picks despite evidence of shaky nerves … young bucks like Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler, at home, playing video games and firing pencils at the ceiling during the Ryder Cup … Love's choice of pasta over steak on that one dinner with his wife back in 1994 … Love not asking Mary Lou Bennett to the junior high prom in the mid-1970s…
Regrets, Cap'n Love has had a few.
Unlike Sinatra's regrets in "My Way," which were too few to mention – the 2012 Ryder Cup is worth a mention.
And to think, Saturday night, with a 10-6 lead and every reason in the world to believe it would be a "U!S!A!" Sunday. Even given Ian Poulter's Marty Feldman-esque display of eyeballs in Saturday's last match, Love probably spent Saturday eve leading the team in "Gangnam Style" dances until the wee hours.
But if there's anything Team Europe has taught us about the Ryder Cup, since the days when Seve Ballesteros birthed a fiery righteousness and American-beating psyche into our neighbors across the Atlantic, it's that Europe doesn't take a lickin' lying down.
Love – and the rest of us, in fairness – was probably guilty of forgetting that little part of the equation. As a result, he has now bought property in SecondGuessVille, Population: Everyone With an Opinion.
Of course, this is the part of the column where Love, if reading, slaps the bumper sticker: "Opinions Are Like (Rear Ends). Everyone Has One." And, after masterfully leading the team to the brink of victory, he has a right to harrumph at anyone who doubts some of his Sunday decisions. But, scoreboard is scoreboard, as the kids say. Love will have to wear the mantel of shepherding America to the worst Ryder Cup collapse in history. Yes, even worse than Europe's choke in 1999, considering that American team was surging on home turf. This time, Europe clocked Love's Yanks on a road game for Europe, even wearing the road whites while doing so.
Love's sins can be boiled down four ways:
1. Playing Tiger last: This one had shades of Curtis Strange at the Belfry in '02. With the Cup still up in the air, Strange had Tiger batting 12th and – as almost always – the Cup was decided before his match was over. Same deal in 2012. Even Annika Sorenstam tweeted her disagreement Saturday night with Tiger in the 12 hole, the thinking being that even a diminished Tiger is still one of the most feared beasts in the Match Play Jungle. Knowing he needed 4½ points to win the Cup, putting Tiger in the anchor match almost told the U.S. team beforehand – hey, we may need this if Europe makes a run at us. That's bad psychological voodoo, and played out as such.
2. Playing Stricker 11th: If Love believed the Cup would come down to Tiger in the 12-hole, wouldn't he be better served putting Stricker in a middle-round match, the better to hide a guy who had gone pointless in the first two days? While every match is critical, of course, the matches in slots 4 through 7 tend to be matches not dripping with as much importance as Matches 1 and 2, or Matches 9-11. The first two can set a tone, while the later ones are imbued with the knowledge of the scoreboards on the course. Stricker, scoreless on Friday and Saturday, was clearly playing poorly. Better to "hide" him, as it were, in a middle slot. As it turned out, he felt the weight of the world on his super-nice-guy shoulders and made an unconscionable bogey on the 17th hole from a greenside lie, running his chip eight feet past and missing the comebacker to give Kaymer the 1-up lead he would not relinquish. You could almost hear Stricker's nerves crackling through the TV audio.
[Photos: America's collapse]
3. Sitting Mickelson and Bradley Saturday afternoon: Love had a game plan: Nobody would play five matches, because statistics showed players who do play all five fade on Sunday. Credit to Love for having a plan and sticking to it. But discredit to Love for history shining unfavorably on the choice to sit the Boys Who Owned Medinah – Phil and his newfound fountain of youth, Keegan. Bradley was everything to the USA that Sergio Garcia had been to Europe in the past; a jolt, a walking fist-pump, a guy who cared so much about the Ryder Cup that if you didn't, you were dead to him. Love might have read the room on Saturday at lunch time and thought to himself: If I sit these guys, I'm sitting my best players. Or, he could stick to his plan and bench them – a great plan, as I was just saying to my good friend Stephen Strasburg. Love stuck to dogma, sat them and opened the door for Poulter's magical Saturday afternoon, when Poulter's eyeballs served as resuscitative paddles to Europe's corpse. Meanwhile, so much for statistics. The "rested" Keegan and Phil both lost their Sunday singles.
4.) Picking Furyk as a captain's selection: This one was first-guessed by many in early September when Love made the call. Furyk, once seen as a match-play bulldog second-to-none, clearly showed signs of jitters all year. His U.S. Open late fade at Olympic stung, and then he doubled down in pain with the double bogey at Firestone to blow the WGC event on the 72nd hole. Worse, Furyk tripled down on agony with a blown Tour Championship at East Lake, making a triple-bogey 7 late to let Brandt Snedeker cruise to victory. Furyk's reputation as a steel-minded closer was in the past. In the present was a player who, while an admirable teammate and solid citizen, was accumulating scars the same way Rory McIlroy was accumulating wins. Conversely, so much about Team USA bubbled with promise on the youthful side – Dustin Johnson beating Nick Colsaerts on Sunday, Webb Simpson teaming up for wins with Bubba Watson, Jason Dufner's rookie cool coming through in a big Sunday win over Peter Hanson. What hurts the Americans is the knowledge that some other youngsters whom Love overlooked – Watney, Mahan and Fowler come to mind – were passed over for a fading Furyk. And when Furyk backed off his par try on 17 twice, drawing audible scorn from the doubting crowd, you had to feel for the guy. He never had a chance to make it. That he followed it with a three-putt bogey on 18? In four matches, captain's pick Furyk scored one point. Greenside, lips pursed, Cap'n Love, having been through the wars with Furyk on many international teams, could only rue.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
Justin Rose d. Phil Mickelson, 1-up, Sunday singles, Ryder Cup, Medinah CC, Medinah, Ill.
As with all second-guessing, there are some things that could render it irrelevant. Mickelson hanging on to a 1-up lead on the 17th tee box is one of them.
[Related: Americans' fate decided on 17th hole]
This, sports fans, was the match that won the Cup for Europe.
Mickelson, fueled by the nuclear energy of his young partner, Bradley, from Friday and Saturday, was in a good place. He'd not only gone 3-0 with Keegan, he played dynamite golf on Sunday in the face of Rose, making five birdies in his first 14 holes to build a 1-up lead on the 17th tee.
Rose, though, answered Mickelson, playing 4-under golf through the first 16 holes. And then came one of those Ryder Cup "turning points" history will parse through the years.
Mickelson's tee shot on 17 was long, necessitating a delicate lob chip. True to form, a charged-up Lefty damn near jarred the thing. I mean, it missed by a hair. He ran off the mound ready to explode in joy. Bradley, watching greenside, told NBC he'd have cannon-balled into the nearby lake had it fallen. Rose then had to two-putt from 40 feet to halve the hole.
Except … Rose jarred the 40-footer.
A game of inches, amigos. A game of inches.
Mickelson, so exuberant in the moment, gave Rose a hearty applause and thumbs-up on the way to the 18th tee, like a wide receiver who signals "first down!" after enduring a post-catch clocking over the middle.
Rose wasn't done. His approach to 18 was pure, and gave him a 10-foot chance at birdie. When Mickelson made the par that forced pressure on Rose, Rose answered with a birdie and a 1-up win. Lady Momentum officially called the moving van and had her stuff schlepped over to the European team room. Not until that very moment did Team USA start to think they could blow this thing. Rose's 1-up win made it so. Rose thus earns "Scorecard of the Week," an honor much richer than the Ryder Cup itself.
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"Whether this good man on my sleeve is what put me through … Seve's trying hard. It's incredible." – Ian Poulter, on NBC, gesturing to image of the late Seve Ballesteros on his Team Europe shirt, just after finishing a Sunday singles win over Webb Simpson to finish a 4-0 Cup.
So many Broadcast Moments to choose from, so little time. Whether it was Johnny Miller calling the USA's Ryder Cup "the Colossal Collapse in Chicago" – amazing that Miller used that many c-words and didn't use "choke" – or whether it was any discussion of Bradley's eyes lining up a putt, or of Poulter's eyes trying to escape his head, the Ryder Cup is a rich tapestry of moments.
But, we choose this one because of two reasons: 1. Poulter's role in the European stunner; and 2. Seve's role in the European stunner.
Europe seems to produce players who truly do live for the Ryder Cup. Poulter joins the ranks of Colin Montgomerie and Sergio Garcia as players who cannot get it done individually at a major championship – like, zero majors collectively – but seem to relish the security blanket European teammates provide at the Cup. Monty, Sergio and Poulter are probably the three most devastating European Cuppers since the heyday of Seve himself, and there's almost no explaining it, except that they must warm to the team game more than being on the island of despair when playing in a regular tournament, alone.
Europe was captained by Jose Maria Olazabal this time around, and if you're looking for somebody to rip JMO's manner, style, demeanor or character, you'll be waiting just as long for a USA Ryder Cup celebration at Medinah. "Ollie," as they call him, is pure class, and his decision to honor the late Spaniard, his countryman and Ryder Cup teammate, by stitching his silhouette on the golf bag and shirt wound up being momentous. Who knows what role the supernatural plays on human events? Did Harvey Penick's memory spur Ben Crenshaw to the 1995 Masters? Crenshaw swears it's so. Did Love's 1997 PGA rainbow really mean his late father was looking down? If Love thought so, that's all that matters.
And did the invocation of Seve Ballesteros, the greatest – and most irksome, if you talk to some American foes – European Ryder Cupper help keep Team Europe believing? You can scoff, but Olazabal looked skyward when Europe clinched. His eyes were not dry.
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
If Team USA knew we were offering mulligans, they might take a number and wait as if at a crowded delicatessen. You can almost hear the deli owner now: "Mulligan for Jim Furyk, 17th hole, now serving!" Or, "Mulligan for Davis Love, on any number of decisions, now serving!"
Heck, I'd offer a mulligan for McIlroy for nearly missing his tee time – nearly missing his tee time on Sunday at the Ryder Cup!! – by mistaking the Central time zone for the Eastern time zone, in one of several dubious "For-real-my-Northern-Irish-homeboy?" moments. But, in the end, McIlroy won his match, so no mully needed. Instead, you can now say, without any trace of irony, that Rory McIlroy is the kind of player who can roll out of bed and win a Ryder Cup singles match.
In the end, I'm going to have to go with Stricker's finish.
Even though Europe poured an avalanche of momentum on the proceedings, even though the USA seemed cooked by late afternoon, there actually still was a chance for the Americans to somehow escape with the Cup. It would require Stricker at least halving his match with Kaymer, and it seemed feasible, given Kaymer's career wobbles of late. So, on the 17th hole, when Stricker's tee shot hung on the apron and left him an up-and-down that he'd surely execute, he instead overcooked his chip shot, eight feet past.
His eight-foot comebacker looked like 80 feet. And so it was that "The Best Putter in America" missed the putt he could least afford to miss. Kaymer won the hole with a par, went 1-up and when they halved 18, the Cup was Europe's.
But think about the possibility of a Stricker halve in that match. It would have brought Europe to 13½ points, a half-point shy of the Cup. That would mean all eyes – yes, all eyes, even on an NFL Sunday – would shift to the final two holes of Tiger Woods vs. Francesco Molinari. The drama! Tiger, the world's most famous sportsman, embarrassed from his image downfall of 2009, on the path to resurrecting himself with three wins in 2012, still working to earn back his "world's-greatest-stone-cold-killer" persona, with a chance to win the Cup for the USA.
If he did, I honestly wonder if ESPN headquarters would have self-combusted.
Instead, he never got the chance.
Stricker's bogey on 17 essentially sealed the Cup for Europe.
So, let's go back out to 17, put Stricker's ball on that first cut, remind him that Tiger and one of the great dramatic sports stories of the year awaited one match behind him, remind him that he can get up-and-down from that spot 300 times out of 300 and … give that man a mulligan!
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Where do we go? Heck, wherever Europe is partying. Rory and Graeme are buying the Guinness, Kaymer is buying the Beck's and Olazabal is pouring the Rioja, as I complete my trifecta of European drinking stereotypes.
This is my last column until 2013, so godspeed, golf fans. The PGA Tour season of 2012 is now over, and that loud "THANK GOD!" you just heard came from Furyk's courtesy car on the way to the airport.
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