It increasingly appears that we'll look back at 2012 as the last time we got to watch Tiger Woods compete at the Ryder Cup. This is worth reflecting on because, enigmatic to the end, the conclusion of Woods's singles match versus Francesco Molinari was a small moment that revealed so much about Tiger, the European side and the very nature of the Ryder Cup.
On that fateful Sunday, Woods was sent out in the 12th and final singles match, an eminently second-guessable move by U.S. Captain Davis Love III; there was a strong chance the Ryder Cup would be decided in the preceding 11 matches, and Tiger's result would be rendered meaningless. But as the U.S. frittered away its 10-6 lead, the last match began to look momentous. "There was a scoreboard at the 11th hole, and there I started to go through it, and it became clear it was either our match or the one before that was going to decide it," Molinari told me recently. "It was a big shot of adrenaline. Tiger was looking at the board, too. We both knew what we were playing for."
When Woods won the 13th hole he went 1-up, but Molinari took No. 14 with a par. The scoreboard was bleeding European blue—incredibly, the Yanks lost the first five matches of the day—and it indeed came down to the final two pairings.
In the 11th match, Steve Stricker missed a shortish putt on the 17th hole to go 1-down to Martin Kaymer, but Woods gave the American side a glimmer of hope when he won the 17th hole to forge a 1-up lead. At that point the Ryder Cup was tied, 13-13. Golf fans on either side of the Atlantic could barely breathe. If Stricker could win the 18th hole, stealing a half point, and Tiger could close out his match, the U.S. would win the Cup.
From the fairway, Woods and Molinari watched as Stricker failed to make birdie, and Kaymer buried a five-footer for par to win the match 1-up. Europe now had 14 points, ensuring (at worst) an overall tie, meaning they would hold on to Samuel Ryder's trophy, having won it in 2010. After the delirious celebrants cleared off the 18th green, Woods and Molinari had to finish their match. Love said nothing to Woods about how to proceed. Looking back at the moment with four years of perspective, Love—who will captain Team USA at Hazeltine this year—told me, "It's an awkward moment. I didn't know what was the right thing to do. Tiger is the tactician. He knew what to do."
At the Ryder Cup, the U.S. tends to play not to lose. The Europeans play to win. Captain José María Olazábal didn't want to merely retain the trophy, he wanted to win the 2012 Ryder Cup. He sidled up to Molinari and spoke hard in his ear. "I didn't have a clue what to do," Molinari said, "so I looked to Olazábal, and he told me, "It's not the same, winning or halving, so get focused and win this hole." So that's what I tried to do."
Molinari ran his long birdie putt three feet past the hole and marked his ball. Woods's ensuing chip settled a few inches outside of Molinari's ball. The scene around the green was barely contained mayhem, and Woods hurried through his routine and missed his par putt. If Molinari missed his, the Cup would end 14-14, a moral victory despite the blown lead as it would mark only the second time this century the U.S. hadn't actually lost. But Woods picked up Molinari's ballmark, conceding the par, losing the hole and handing the Euros the Cup, 14.5-13.5. Was Woods's concession great sportsmanship or an act of pique from a guy who wanted to get the hell off the course as soon as possible? Years later Molinari is still not certain. "For sure, Tiger was upset they lost, and he didn't want to watch us celebrate," Molinari says. "Maybe that was it. But I like to think it was sportsmanship. It was a nice thing for him to do."
In the U.S. team's press conference afterward, the very first question was for Woods, asked to defend his concession. He sounded bored and a touch defiant: "The Cup had already been retained by Europe, so it was already over."
This was not a universal view. One member of the U.S. team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says, "Personally, I would have preferred to say we didn't lose that Ryder Cup. I understand Europe was going to keep the trophy, but history would show we did not lose. But that was a classic case of Tiger being Tiger—he does things his own way. He always has."