MEDINAH, Ill. — What looked like a potential runaway for the Americans turned into a thriller as Europe, playing in memory of Seve Ballesteros, dominated the Sunday singles and won the 39th Ryder Cup at Medinah, 14 ½-13 ½.
With the score tied 13-13, the Cup came down to the final two matches, and four players who had yet to win a point. Martin Kaymer made a clutch, six-foot par putt on 18 to defeat Steve Stricker, 1 up, and give the Europeans a 14-13 lead. That guaranteed them at least a tie, which meant they would retain the Cup because they won the 2010 matches at Celtic Manor in Wales.
"I can't actually believe what's happened," Europe's dynamo Ian Poulter said after running his record to 4-0-0 at Medinah. "It's just unbelievable."
Tiger Woods won the 17th hole with a par against Francesco Molinari, and though it was of no consequence, he missed his short par putt on 18 and conceded Molinari his own short par putt. They halved the anchor match for the final score.
"Seve will always be present with this team," said European captain Jose Maria Olazabal. "He was a big factor for this event, for the European side, and last night when we were having the meeting. I think the boys understood that believing was the most important thing, and I think they did."
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With a 10-6 lead going into the final day, its biggest lead heading into the singles since 1981, the U.S. needed only 4 ½ points to win back the Cup, but the team got off to a slow start and struggled from there, earning just 3 ½ of a possible 12 points.
"That's golf," U.S. captain Davis Love III said. "We didn't play well today. We could have laid [the singles lineup] out there in any order today and played like that. It wouldn't have really mattered. These guys had a great week, had a lot of fun and they played well. They played a lot of good golf, and so did the other side. To end up like that is unfortunate. I know these guys put a lot into it."
In the first match of the day, Luke Donald matched Bubba Watson's birdie on the first hole, then won four of the next 11 to take a 4-up lead. Watson tried to fight back with birdies on 14, 15 and 16, but Donald's up-and-down par on 17 gave him a 2-and-1 win. The score was 10-7; counting Saturday, Europe had won three consecutive points.
"Hopefully I gave the guys plenty of inspiration," Donald said.
Paul Lawrie put the finishing touches on his 5-and-3 victory over American Brandt Snedeker, who never quite found his game at this Ryder Cup. It was 10-8.
"I think we don't want to get ahead of ourselves," said Lawrie, who made five birdies and no bogeys, and never trailed, "but right now it's looking pretty good, and we just need to boys to hold on. You never know."
Keegan Bradley came back from 2 down but got stymied behind a tree on the par-5 14th, and Rory McIlroy won the hole to go 1 up. He won 15, too, with a birdie after Bradley hit his tee shot into the gallery, and hung on for a 2-and-1 win despite arriving at the course 10 minutes before the tee time. It was 10-9.
Captain's pick Poulter, the heartbeat of the European team, birdied the 18th hole and held off Webb Simpson, 2 up. All of the sudden, it was anyone's game at 10-10.
It was Poulter, 36, who did the most to alter the momentum of this Ryder Cup. He made five straight closing birdies in his four-ball match with partner McIlroy on Saturday night, and the Euros beat a shell-shocked Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson, 1 up, to breathe life into a moribund side. It made the score 10-6 through the team sessions, a major deficit, but Europe finally had momentum.
"There was a buzz in the team room last night that didn't feel like we had a four-point deficit," said Poulter, who improved to a gaudy 12-3-0 in his Ryder Cup career. "For some reason everyone was calm. Everyone was cracking jokes. We just felt like we had that tiny little chance, and do you know what? The boys have proved it today and made history. It has been unbelievable."
The American captain's picks did not fare as well, as Stricker went 0-4, and Jim Furyk and Snedeker combined to earn just a single point. Dustin Johnson, who won his last two matches, was the only captain's pick who ever looked comfortable at Medinah. It wasn't until he closed out Nicolas Colsaerts, 3 and 2, that the Americans won a point Sunday, getting their noses back out front, 11-10, but by that time crazy things were happening.
Justin Rose was spared from going 2 down with three to play when Phil Mickelson missed his roughly 10-foot birdie try on 15, and after Mickelson made a long par putt on 16, Rose matched the left-hander to stay just 1 down. When Rose birdied 17 with a roughly 40-foot, downhill putt that would've gone screaming past the hole if it hadn't hit it, and 18, he was a 1-up winner. It was 11-11.
"I wouldn't say I've made three bigger putts, back to back, in my career, ever," said Rose, who also beat Mickelson in singles at Valhalla in 2008.
"He played some great golf," said Mickelson, who along with Bradley made up the biggest bright spot for the Americans over the first two days, and who went 3-1-0 at Medinah. "I thought I played pretty good and, you know, shot a decently low round. But the last three holes, you know, I thought I had the match."
He wasn't the only one. Nearly every close match went the Europeans' way as they won the singles 8 ½-3 ½ . Sergio Garcia's 1-up victory over Furyk was damaging for the Americans, as Furyk took a 1-up lead to the 17th tee but bogeyed both of the final two holes to lose and drop to 9-17-4 in eight Ryder Cups.
"I have no doubt in my mind that [Ballesteros] was with me today," Garcia said, "because there's no chance I would have won my match if he wasn't there."
Zach Johnson provided one of the few bright spots for the Americans as he beat Graeme McDowell, 2 and 1, and Jason Dufner built a big lead and held on to beat Peter Hanson, 2 up. Lee Westwood dusted Matt Kuchar, 3 and 2.
And so the Americans are left to try and figure out what exactly happened, the Ryder Cup having been rudely and shockingly wrenched from their grasp.
Was it fate? Mickelson's chip shot from behind the 17th green was so close to going in that he ran after it and began to raise his arms in celebration. Rose's long birdie putt was going almost as fast as Justin Leonard's famous putt that won the Cup for the Americans in 1999. The hole got in the way both times.
Was it timing? Of the matches to reach the 18th hole Sunday, Europe went 4-1-1. Of the matches that ended on 17, Europe went 2-1-0.
Was it age? Although 42-year-old Mickelson played well, he, Furyk (42) and Stricker (45) lost to much younger opponents in Rose, Garcia and Kaymer.
"Martin played well today," Stricker said, "and I just really didn't. I didn't put enough pressure on him, really, to get anything done."
"We're all kind of stunned," Love said. "We know what it feels like now from the [European perspective of the] '99 Ryder Cup. It's a little bit shocking. We were playing so well, everybody on our team was playing so well, we just figured it didn't matter how we sent them out there. But we put who we thought were our hot players up front, and we put who we thought were our steady players at the back that would get us points."
Alas, with the exception of Dufner, who made eagles on both front-nine par-5s; Dustin Johnson, who made six birdies; and Zach Johnson, who pretty much let McDowell beat himself, the Americans were neither particularly hot nor steady.
For them, this one will sting a while, while for Europe, it's one for the storybooks.