For American fans, it was a kick in the gut.
For golf fans, it was sublime.
In inarguably the greatest and most shocking comeback in Ryder Cup history, the Europeans rallied from a 10-4 deficit late Saturday evening to win 10.5 of the last 14 points to take back the little gold trophy that has come to symbolize everything that is great about the game.
With the image of Seve Ballesteros on their sleeves, his name written in the clouds and his passion in their hearts, they pulled off the kind of escape from a rough spot that the late Spaniard would admire and captain Jose Maria Olazabal will take great pride in. Team Europe matched the math that Team USA made in Sunday singles 13 years ago in what was dubbed the miracle at Brookline, but this was so much bigger because it came on foreign soil and against a far superior opponent top to bottom than the 1999 European squad.
And when it was all over and the European elation was soaked in champagne and the American disappointment was fighting back tears, the worst part about this incredible biennial event commenced: the autopsy inevitably blaming the losing captain and the absurd declarations that the winning team simply “wanted it more.”
Don’t even try to pin this U.S. defeat on Davis Love III. You can second guess all you want whether he should have demanded red-hot Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley seek a fourth partnership victory Saturday afternoon, if he should have benched struggling teammates Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker in Friday’s fourballs or if he made the wrong call picking veteran Jim Furyk after a summer or prescient breakdowns under pressure.
They are all certainly legitimate questions that grow larger in hindsight. But the fact of the matter is, Love’s leadership and team management delivered the largest American lead heading into Sunday’s singles since the pre-competitive era in 1981. They didn’t lose a single partner session for the first time since the U.S. started taking on all of Europe in 1979.
You send out a lineup of 12 golfers all ranked in the top 23 in the world and ask them only to deliver 4.5 points, you’ve done your job as captain. The rest is on them, and the Americans didn’t deliver.
Six times matches went to the 18th hole Sunday with the Cup still up for grabs and the Americans only won one. Webb Simpson lost the last two holes to Ian Poulter. Justin Rose brilliantly stole the last two holes from Phil Mickelson. Furyk painfully bogeyed the last two holes to hand the match to Sergio Garcia. Stricker gave up an essential half point to struggling Martin Kaymer with a bad bogey on 17.
Golf is a hard game made harder under extreme pressure. But if you or I had closed like that with money on the line at our local club, we would admit we choked. And you only choke when you care about something. The Europeans tightened the collar and the Yanks suffocated under the stress.
So while the Europeans had to cope with their hangovers the morning after, the Americans will have to deal with their failure to finish much longer. That hurt will fester until the next chance for redemption in two years on an inferior course in Scotland, where the drama will once again exhilarate and annihilate the emotions of golf fans.
Here are a few birdies and bogeys from a brilliant event that will resonate for years:
BIRDIE: Dustin Johnson. Can’t find fault with anyone who goes 3-0, unless perhaps he should have played more.
BIRDIE: Keegan Bradley. His Sunday slump aside, he became the emerging heart and face of future American teams with his unbridled passion and rising talent.
BOGEY: Brandt Snedeker. For a guy who just won $11 million the week before, that was not a very money drive he hit when it mattered on 18 on Friday and he looked lost Sunday.
BIRDIE: Ian Poulter. The closer Americans hope Bradley becomes. His eye-bulging, vein-popping five-birdie finish in the gloaming Saturday night flipped his match and ignited the rally.
NO CARD: Steve Stricker. A unanimous captain’s pick purely to partner with Tiger Woods, he never showed a spark and might have tasted his last RC experience.
BIRDIE: Rory McIlroy. Hardly No. 1 caliber until his Central time zone brainlock led to a police escort and stellar trunk-slamming performance that was just what his team needed.
BIRDIE: Phil Mickelson. True team player the way he mentored Bradley and played a great match Sunday until Justin Rose drained three consecutive huge putts to beat him.
BOGEY: Tiger Woods. Epitome of his new reality: flashes of brilliance overshadowed by ordinary finishes. He didn’t get any help from Stricker, but 0-3-1 is unacceptable for him.
BIRDIE: Bubba Watson. Just for the way he encouraged the crowd to scream as he hit on the first tee was enough contribution to American spirits.
BOGEY: Jim Furyk. Just as he did with recent leads at Olympic, Firestone and East Lake, he cracked under pressure. He’ll have to earn his way onto the next team.
BIRDIE: Martin Kaymer. Despite all his recent woes, he earned Germany redemption by making the 6-foot clinching putt that Bernhard Langer missed at Kiawah in 1991.
BOGEY: Francesco Molinari. Unlike Jack Nicklaus, who conceded a short putt and overall tie to Tony Jacklin in the Ryder Cup’s most famous concession in 1969, the Italian let Woods miss a meaningless par putt at the end.
BIRDIE: Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson: These “borderline dead” guys are perfect partners and steady match-play bulldogs. They should be fixtures for the near future.
BOGEY: Opening ceremony. Please spare players and fans from any more Justin Timberlake poetry recitals and excruciating, self-serving tripe in the future.
BIRDIE: Sky writers: With five-plane precision “Go Europe” messages such as “Do it for Seve” and “Anyone seen Tiger?” bookmaker Paddy Power got the attention it was paying for.
BOGEY: Closing interviews. The mass interrogation of the losers and the drunken giggle-fest with the winners hours after the competition ends doesn’t make anyone look good.
BIRDIE: Captains Olazabal and Love: Two of the classiest guys in golf who set exactly the right tone all the time. It’s a shame either of them had to lose.