MEDINAH, Ill. — Europe finally had something to cheer about, but it may be too little, too late, as the U.S. team takes a commanding 10-6 lead into Sunday of the 39th Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club.
"Massive task tomorrow," said Justin Rose, "but there's a chance."
The U.S. lead would have been bigger were it not for Ian Poulter, who reeled off five straight closing birdies in the fading light as he and Rory McIlroy turned a 2-down deficit into a 1-up victory over Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson.
"He just took over," McIlroy said.
Poulter's rally, combined with Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia's 1-up win over Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods — with Donald and Woods making a flurry of birdies over the last six holes — gave Europe an outside chance at keeping the Cup. Until Europe won those two matches, it looked like a 10-4 deficit would go to 11-5 or even 11 ½-4 ½.
"Today was not a great day for us, but it was a great finish," European captain Jose Maria Olazabal said. "I think everyone realized what the Ryder Cup was all about when you saw those last three matches this afternoon, the level of game that was played, and the intensity. That's what the Ryder Cup is all about."
The U.S. came back from a 10-6 deficit to win at Brookline in 1999, but needed 14 ½ points to do so. As the holder of the Cup, Europe needs only 14 points to retain it, making a miracle comeback slightly less of a climb. The Euros have played all week in honor of the late Seve Ballesteros, whose silhouette is on their golf bags, and they plan to continue to honor him with their Sunday outfits.
It seemed odd that even with the Americans' big lead, courtesy of the Yanks' winning the first three sessions for the first time since all of Europe became eligible for the Ryder Cup in 1979, all anyone was talking about was Poulter.
McIlroy birdied the par-3 13th hole to begin to cut into the Americans' lead before the dandy Brit Poulter went on his run of five closing birdies to run his record in the team matches to 3-0-0 at Medinah and 8-3-0 for his Ryder Cup career. Although Dufner birdied 14 and 18, and Johnson birdied 17, they could not match Poulter's fireworks.
"It was an incredible finish to what was looking like a very mundane day," said Poulter, who had scratched out only two birdies over the first 13 holes.
"Getting that birdie on 13 really gave us the little bit of momentum, the spark that we needed," said McIlroy, who like many others shook his head and laughed during Poulter's crazy run. "I could have just walked into the clubhouse. It was the Poults Show from there on in, and it was just a joy to watch."
Still, it may have little bearing on the final outcome. The Americans won the Saturday morning foursomes by a score of 3-1, building a tidy 8-4 cushion. The Europeans badly needed to win the afternoon session, but they only managed a 2-2 split. Playing in the first afternoon match, American mainstays Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson made nine birdies and never trailed as they knocked out Francesco Molinari and Justin Rose, 5 and 4.
"This is what golf is all about," said Watson, who cheered on his partner as Simpson made seven birdies, including four straight from the eighth through the 11th holes, to salt away the point. "It's a great atmosphere."
With Simpson-Watson getting the first point, it was 9-4.
Dustin Johnson rolled in a long, downhill birdie putt on the par-3 17th hole, and he and Matt Kuchar held off Nicolas Colsaerts and Paul Lawrie. It was 10-4.
(Related photos: U.S. Extends Lead at Ryder Cup)
"That's the loudest roar I've ever heard, especially for me, on a golf course," said Johnson. "And the situation, it was big, and you know, I was just glad I had my partner here all day to pull me through. He kept giving me confidence that I was going to turn it around, and it did, on the back nine."
Johnson was out of several holes but birdied the par-5 14th as well as 17.
"These guys are making my job easy," said U.S. captain Davis Love III.
Needing just 4 ½ points to win the Cup for the first time since 2008, the U.S. looked like it might further extend the lead with two matches still on the course, but that was when Donald and then Poulter gave Europe a small ray of hope.
In the third match Stricker had a chance to earn a half point on 18, but he hit his roughly 12-foot birdie putt too hard and watched it lip out hard on the left edge and roll harmlessly by the hole. The once-great Stricker-Woods partnership fell to 0-3.
Saturday morning brought a repeat of the most enduring images from Friday as super-rookie Keegan Bradley and revitalized veteran Phil Mickelson continued to wreak havoc as Team USA's two-man wrecking crew. The team is 3-0-0.
"I've been saying it all week: Put Keegan in the Milwaukee Open and he's got no chance," said Steve (Pepsi) Hale, Bradley's caddie, as he watched Friday afternoon's matches. "But put him in something like this, and he's a superstar."
Bradley and Mickelson hammered Donald and Lee Westwood, 7 and 6, after which Love benched the duo for the Saturday afternoon matches, conserving their strength for the Sunday singles session. Mickelson asked for the rest.
Woods sat out Saturday morning as other American winners included Dufner and Johnson, who held off Nicolas Colsaerts and Sergio Garcia, 2 and 1; and Jim Furyk and rookie Brandt Snedeker, who avenged Friday's loss to Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, beating the Ulstermen 1 up.
"Happy with the position the team is in," Dufner said, still taking the long view after he and Zach Johnson had fallen victim to the wildly entertaining Poulter highlight reel late Saturday. "Looking forward to getting some points early and trying to get that magic number, 14 ½. It should be fun tomorrow."