NEWPORT, Wales (AP) — He might have been the last guy anybody expected to shine.
Not just because Jeff Overton was a Ryder Cup rookie, but also because of the way he made the U.S. team: as the only qualifier never to have won even one PGA Tour event.
Then he got partnered with Bubba Watson, another raw rook, an opening-round pairing that nearly everyone assumed had “sacrificial lamb” scrawled all over it. But slipping in under the radar has always been Overton’s M.O.
When someone asked Watson whether the two even wanted to play together, he shot back, “No.
“I don’t even like him. Look at him,” Watson added, chuckling. “He’s ugly.”
Yet by the time the two wrapped up their 3-and-2 ambush of European veterans Padraig Harrington and Luke Donald in the better-ball match, no one else was laughing.
“Just because we’re rookies doesn’t mean we’re going to go out there and choke,” Overton said. “The four or five years that the two of us have been out here, we’ve made as many birdies as anybody on the PGA Tour. So we felt really comfortable.
“We figured one of us is going to get on a run and it just so happened to be me,” he added, “right in the middle of the round.”
As a golfer, Overton’s pedigree is decidedly underwhelming. He grew up in the Midwest and played at Indiana University, neither a hotbed for the pro game. That had less to do with growing up in Evansville, a hundred miles north of the campus in Bloomington, than the fact that his home-state school was the only one to offer him a scholarship. Then Overton stayed in Bloomington, where the winters limit the golf season to a couple of months.
“But that’s probably why he’s playing so well over here,” said his father, Ron Overton, pointing to the gray scudding clouds. “This is Big Ten weather.
“It’s true that Jeff didn’t grow up like a lot of the guys on the tour, playing in all the big junior competitions under sunny skies down in Florida or out West, or going to a ‘real’ golf school. But we always told him, ‘Jack Nicklaus went to Ohio State and he turned out to be a pretty fair player.
“When you learn to play golf in the Midwest,” his dad added, “this stuff just doesn’t seem so bad.”
Some 40 Hoosiers crossed the pond earlier this week to see the local hero play. Overton did not disappoint. He notched the first birdie for the U.S. team and barely cooled off until he and Watson reached the closing holes of the day’s second match, this time in alternate-shot against Donald and fellow Englishman Ian Poulter.
The Americans tied the match at No. 13 and Overton boomed a 330-yard-plus drive off the next tee. Watson then stuck a short iron to three feet and as the U.S. pair walked onto the green, the thin sliver of red-clad Indiana fans appeared to have commandeered the entire grandstand.
“Go IU! Go IU!” they chanted, exploding when Overton rolled in the birdie putt.
“This style of golf just suits him” said Mike Mayer, who was his coach at Indiana and, like Overton’s dad, walked every hole Jeff played. “The funny thing is we didn’t have match-play when he was at school. But if you looked at his record in the Palmer Cup, the Walker Cup and the U.S. Amateur, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.”
But at the next hole, a dogleg par-4, Watson sprayed his drive way left and Donald drove the green to set up a birdie and square the match. At the 16th, Watson dumped his approach shot into a bunker and Overton uncharacteristically blasted it out 15 feet past the flag.
“Something fooled him,” Ron Overton said, wincing as he tried to read his son’s body language.
Moments earlier, Ron, who coached high school football and girls basketball in Evansville for 19 years, talked about how Jeff learned to play at a blue-collar muni in Evansville named Fendrich Golf Course. The fairways were scruffy, the bunkers often contained as much dirt as sand, and the greens rarely rolled true.
“But he worked and worked and worked until he could get around the place a few under par,” Ron recalled. “Lots of times I’d go to pick him up and sit waiting in the car. He was always the last silhouette coming in at night.”
At the par-3 17th, Donald hit a scintillating 4-iron to 2 feet and Poulter rolled in the clinching birdie. The cheers for the Europeans cascaded all across the hillside.
Instead of being cowed, Overton held his head high, smiled and took it all in. The Ryder Cup was everything people promised it would be.
“I was looking up and there’s 35,000 people and you’re standing at the base of it and you hear roars coming from all over the place,” he said, smiling. “You’ve got to love it.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org