MEDINAH, Ill. — Look at Keegan Bradley. Look at the eyes bulging out of his head, the veins popping out on his neck. Listen to the primal scream that is Bradley celebrating another tiny victory in not just the Ryder Cup but the oldest game in human history, the ancient game of Us against Them.
Whatever you make of Europe’s crazy, come-from-behind, 14 ½-13 ½ victory at the 39th Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club, that face, with that delirious howl, encapsulates the event. And we saw it a lot this week, especially from Bradley and his European counterpart, Ian Poulter.
Every two years, right around the time we have forgotten who these guys are amid the shiny subterfuge that is an $11.44 million payday or a driver made out of a Ferrari, they show themselves to us yet again. They well up with tears at the mention of the late Seve Ballesteros, as European captain Jose Maria Olazabal did more than once. They play for each other more than for themselves. The old ones look young again, and the young ones grow up before our eyes.
In Bradley we see Sergio Garcia dancing around at his first Ryder Cup in 1999, Seve in his prime, and Poulter at any Ryder Cup. We see the intoxicating exuberance of youth, even in men old enough to worry about 401(k)s and tuition payments. It looks like high-fives and chest-bumps and knuckle-touches and super-cool, red-white-and-blue tennis shoes, as a few of the American caddies wore at Medinah.
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Look at Phil Mickelson. He’s 42, a Hall of Famer, a father, a spokesman for the company that makes the medicine he takes to manage his arthritis. He set the record for most losses by an American in Ryder Cup history (17) in Wales two years ago. He’s no longer transformed by Ryder noise and hats and balance-of-power implications, or the Chicago sports fans lining up three-deep, sleeping amid empty beer cans while waiting hours for an actual golfer to come up the fairway. Then along comes Bradley, 26, who completely revitalizes Mickelson. There is alchemy in their partnership, so much that they go 3-0 and never see the 18th hole, producing enough Ryder rocket fuel to last the U.S. team nearly two full days.
“I feel young again,” Mickelson says, and he plays young. He hits approach shots that cozy up to the pins, putts that keep finding a cold, dark place to hide. He even hits a few fairways as he and Bradley shimmy their way around Medinah, a bromance in full flower, somehow eliciting smiles even from the Europeans, like Luke Donald, who lost to them twice but can hardly be blamed for grinning. Even Johnny Miller looks younger as he marvels at Bradley’s theatrics from the NBC tower. It’s unavoidable, this visceral human response to seeing someone so invested and so immersed in the moment as to transcend everything else. It’s why so many Americans couldn’t help but grin at the antics of Poulter as he made five straight birdies to sink Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson late Saturday afternoon, and why so many were transfixed, if a bit stunned, by Europe’s miracle.
That’s the Ryder Cup — the crazy magic that happens when every match is a tournament unto itself and every man plays for more than just his family and his sponsors. It’s mesmerizing; it makes you smile and shake your head. As much fun as it is to watch the transformations of Bradley and Poulter, it’s even more fun to watch the reactions of their teammates.
Look at Rory McIlroy, laughing at Poulter as the incredible Ian drained five straight birdie putts — the “Poults Show,” as McIlroy called it later — to close out their 1-up victory over Dufner and Johnson, giving Europe just enough good vibes to think something crazy might be possible Sunday.
“There was a buzz in the team room last night that didn’t feel like we had a four-point deficit,” Poulter said. “For some reason, everyone was calm. Everyone was cracking jokes. We just felt that we had that tiny little chance, and do you know what, the boys have proved it today, and made history.”
Look at Rory, still laughing about barely making his tee time Sunday, finally arriving, courtesy of a police escort, with about 10 minutes to spare for his singles match against Bradley, and then thwarting America’s most dynamic player, 2 and 1. That’s the Ryder Cup, too. Sometimes you have to laugh to break the tension, and you’re better for the chance to do so, such as at the opening ceremonies, where the planned fly-over in fact flew over — what, exactly? It wasn’t Medinah. Dan Hicks is still out there looking for it.
Maybe that’s why the Americans played so stress-free, at least for two days. Maybe they were laughing in the team room about Tiger Woods somehow going 0-3 in the team sessions despite making seven birdies Friday afternoon and four in the last six holes Saturday.
“I think we figured out if it was a stroke-play event the first two days,” U.S. captain Davis Love III said, “Tiger might have been leading.”
The Ryder Cup, if it’s played right, is a scream. It’s Woods and Mickelson remembering they can do more than play their usual zero-sum game but can also team up at Ping-Pong, laughing like they’re 12 years old. It’s Colin Montgomerie hyperventilating on Golf Channel about McIlroy’s late arrival: “Where’s his captain? Where are the vice-captains? Where’s his caddie?”
The passion is contagious, so that when McIlroy made his third straight birdie on the sixth hole of his match against Bradley to go 2 up Sunday, the mild-mannered McIlroy loosed a “Come on!” that would have made Poults or Bradley or Seve proud. Bradley matched him with a birdie on the par-3 eighth, cutting the lead to 1 up and raising his fist, bellowing his own “Come on!” as the home crowd responded in kind, everyone lost in the moment. McIlroy raised the volume further still with a birdie at nine to go 2 up again.
Then it got really exciting, a bunch of blue dominoes falling Europe’s way.
Maybe it was Ballesteros’s doing. All week the Europeans said they were playing to honor the late Spaniard, who did so much for Europe and the Ryder Cup. His silhouette was on their golf bags, and their clothes. The skywriters over Medinah, funded by a European betting house, urged them to win this one for Seve. And who’s to say he didn’t win it for them?
"I'm going to be disappointed that we are not going to get together tomorrow to all get ready to play," Bradley said when it was all over.
That’s the Ryder Cup. Played for no money a week after the biggest cash-grab in the game, it’s still the richest event in golf.