LOUISVILLE, Ky. — And the winner for Comeback of the Year is — sorry, Olympics — the Ryder Cup at Valhalla.
Yes, the Ryder Cup is back.
We missed the drama, the tension, the excitement, the churning stomachs.
We missed the fist-pumping, even when a quiet guy like Steve Stricker does it awkwardly Saturday, and for probably the first time in his life. No, especially when a guy like Stricker does it.
We missed the passion, like Sergio Garcia’s primal scream after holing a big putt on the eighth hole on Saturday afternoon, or Justin Leonard’s money putt at 17 on Saturday morning that guaranteed the U.S. at least half a point.
We missed the underdogs. That would be the Americans, after two straight trips to the slaughterhouse in the last four years. Now they’re taking a 9-7 lead into Sunday’s singles matches and Tiger Woods isn’t even here.
We missed the intense stares and eyes as big as saucers, as exhibited in Englishman Ian Poulter’s scary glare after he holed the big putt to clinch his late-finishing fourball match. If his eyes had been lasers, the whole hillside behind the 18th green would still be smoking.
We missed the Cinderella heroes, like Europe’s Oliver Wilson draining a no-brainer putt on the 17th hole in the Saturday morning foursomes to stun America’s glamour team of Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim. He’s no longer Oliver Who?
Or the U.S.A.’s Boo Weekley, golf’s own Beverly Hillbilly, draining a downhill birdie putt on the opening hole of his fourball match and drawing a huge roar. Or Kentucky native Kenny Perry finally getting his first Ryder Cup win at age 48, with Jim Furyk in alternate shot.
We missed the strategy. European captain Nick Faldo sat down Garcia and Lee Westwood, two of his best players, for Saturday’s morning matches; Europe won 2.5 points and gained ground without them. We missed even the conniving strategy, like Faldo busting into the pressroom early on Friday night so he could escape without being questioned before his seemingly dubious pairings were released to the media. Or U.S. captain Paul Azinger sending Stricker out for an encore on Saturday afternoon after a poor debut; guess who holed the crucial gut-check birdie putt for an unbelievable up-and-down from the hay to save half a point? That’s right, Wisconsin’s favorite golf player, Stricker.
We missed the unexpected. Europe’s biggest stars — Garcia, Westwood and Padraig Harrington — have combined for zero wins. The biggest stars of the matches? America’s Hunter Mahan (three points out of a possible four) and captain’s pick Poulter (ditto), hands down. Faldo was right about Poulter, give him that.
We missed the fantastic pressure golf shots. American Chad Campbell’s 5-iron to the 18th on Friday. Stricker’s putt at 18 on Saturday evening after an even more amazing slash-and-hope pitch from the rough on the hillside. Any of European Robert Karlsson’s six birdies on the final nine as he and Henrik Stenson shot 63 in bestball, just to earn a halve with Mickelson and Mahan.
Or Poulter’s seeing-eye putts. Leonard rolling in three clutch putts in a row at 15, 16 and 17 in foursomes.
We even missed the crazy-horrible shots. Stenson chunking a chip six feet. Kim attempting a hero shot from the trees that hit an official European observer and glanced into the creek at the 15th. Poulter shanking a wedge into the pond at the 13th. And the rest.
This is why the Ryder Cup, when it’s close, is the best and most exciting event in professional golf. Even the spectators, whether they’re Kentuckians or fully dressed matadors or would-be leprechauns or television viewers, are mentally exhausted at the end of the day.
The American team has what it wants. It’s back in the game with a great opportunity to win on Sunday. After three straight losses, two of them bitterly humiliating, they couldn’t ask for more. The Europeans have what they want. They’re only two points behind and, in the words of Azinger, still probably the favorites to win on Sunday.
Sunday’s singles matches are too close to call. Anything could happen. Anyone could win. Recent history says it’s Europe’s event for the taking. The Euros are 23 1/2 – 12 1/2 in singles play over the last three Ryder Cups. But those teams had warhorses like Colin Montgomerie and Darren Clarke. These teams have warriors but they’re different warriors.
It means the PGA of America and you, the television viewer, will have what you want, too. Whether the Americans win a thriller or lose to a European avalanche doesn’t matter. It will be a great show. The Ryder Cup is back. Is it ever.