MEDINAH, Ill. – It will go down as the biggest choke in Ryder Cup history, a collapse that even considering the pressure and tension and unpredictability of this remarkable event, was so unexpected as to defy belief.
The United States, utterly dominant on the first two days of competition in this Chicago suburb, failed to hold its nerve and self-destructed on a dramatic final afternoon to allow Europe to retain the trophy, 14.5 points to 13.5.
No home team had ever surrendered a lead of this magnitude, and the gap of four points heading into Sunday should have been enough to ensure a comfortable cruise for the Americans.
Instead, Europe started like a train, kept rolling, piled on some pressure – and the Americans simply could not handle it. Momentum, that sneaky phenomenon, shifted firmly in favor of the visiting team and stayed there.
"We are in shock," said Europe's Justin Rose, whose victory over Phil Mickelson was one of the turning points. In reality, it was the Americans who were stunned. Jim Furyk fought back tears after missing a critical putt to lose to Sergio Garcia on 18. So too did Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley, who was unable to carry his strong pairs form into the individual format on the last day.
This was a Ryder Cup where the script was flipped for much of three days, and then completely reversed in the closing hours. Usually it is the Europeans who display their strength and camaraderie in the pairs matches, and the U.S. who comes to the fore in the singles. When Davis Love III's side secured a healthy advantage, there seemed to be no way back for Europe, even with the memory of the legendary Seve Ballesteros, who died of brain cancer last year and whose logo was on the European shirts, to spur it on.
Yet European captain Jose Maria Olazabal front-loaded his team in an attempt to gain some early traction. And it worked. Luke Donald was imperious in his triumph over Watson, and Ian Poulter, the MVP of this event with a perfect 4-0 record, waited until late to get the better of Webb Simpson.
There was a far more relaxed air about the Europeans, who were so tense on Friday and Saturday, on this final morning. So much so that Rory McIlroy almost missed his tee time, getting confused between central and eastern time zones and rushing to the tee box with just moments to spare before he would have been forfeited.
Nevertheless, McIlroy cut down America's talismanic rookie, Bradley, to continue the European juggernaut. By the time the previously out-of-form Paul Lawrie racked up another win and Rose sunk nerve-jangling putts on 17 and 18 to sneak past Mickelson, the Americans were left on their own, without that buoyant crowd from Friday and Saturday to carry them any longer.
[Photos: U.S. collapse on Sunday at Ryder Cup]
"When you are going good, it is great," Steve Stricker said. "When you are not, it can be a negative, because you feel like you're letting the crowd down."
For this was a poor crowd, one content to holler and celebrate while its team seemed on an inexorable path to victory on the first two days but one which was decidedly muted, save for some unsporting cheers at European missed putts and water-bound shots, down the stretch.
"We wanted to silence the crowd and get things going our way," Poulter said. "We knew that if we got some blue on the board there would be a totally different feel about this place, and that is what happened."
Jason Dufner, Dustin Johnson and Zach Johnson were the only Americans to record a victory, while Tiger Woods recorded a half-point in the final match with Francisco Molinari, one effectively made redundant as Europe had already retained the Cup by the time it was completed.
That move in itself will surely lead to some questioning the selections of Love, but perhaps putting Woods at the end of his lineup was as much a reflection on the 14-time major champion's form as it was an error of captaincy.
[Related: European's find unusual inspiration in sky]
After Garcia won the final two holes to down Furyk and Lee Westwood produced his best golf of the week to outduel Matt Kuchar, it was left to two of the most out-of-sorts players in each side to decide things.
Stricker had lost three times alongside Woods in the pairs, while Martin Kaymer had been chosen only once because of a drastic slump in form. The golf was far from vintage, but Kaymer secured three straight pars at the end and rolled in the winning putt from the tricky distance of eight feet to close things out.
The tension brought back memories of Kaymer's German compatriot, Bernhard Langer, who spent years agonizing over his missed putt in similar circumstances that cost Europe the Cup at Kiawah Island in 1991. If Kaymer had missed, Woods would have had to only split his final hole against Molinari to give the Americans victory. Still, in the end, this was Europe's day. Kaymer drained the putt, and the remaining flicker of hope, from the U.S.
Europe has won five of the last six Ryder Cup events and must now be considered a strong favorite to clinch it once more in 2014, even with the contest at Gleneagles in Scotland still two years off.
European players seem to have discovered the secret in finding inspiration in many different forms – and in refusing to quit even when the scenario looks impossible.
The previous time a 10-6 deficit was overturned was when the U.S. famously did it in 1999 at Brookline, for what remains Woods' only victory in this event. Yet that was on home soil and the U.S. team was clearly stronger on paper.
Nothing should be taken away from these Europeans, who held firm and produced a superb and stirring revival. But this was a result that would not have been possible if the Americans had not seen their nerves desert them at the worst possible time, setting an epic and historic collapse into motion.
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