CHASKA, Minn. – After Davis Love III holed the putt that won the 1993 Ryder Cup at the Belfry in England, he was so excited that he forgot to pick his ball out of the cup. He never saw it again.
Love watched Ryan Moore clinch America’s first Ryder Cup victory in eight years on the 18th green at Hazeltine National on Sunday, then saw Moore make the same mistake. Love retrieved the ball, and when he went to Moore for a celebratory hug, the captain handed it to him.
“And then Ryan gave it back to me,” a moved Love said a few hours later at the winners’ press conference.
Moore, the last of Love’s four captain’s selections, didn’t win this Ryder Cup, although his clinching point made it official. Patrick Reed didn’t win it by beating Europe’s biggest hitter, Rory McIlroy. Phil Mickelson didn’t win it with his 10 birdies against Sergio Garcia, and Rickie Fowler didn’t win it by knocking off Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose.
This is a cliché, the most trite of all sports clichés, but America’s 17-11 Ryder Cup victory over Europe was truly a team effort. And it’s maybe been longer than anyone wants to admit since the United States fielded a true team, and that the U.S. had won only won two of the eight previous Ryder Cups was no coincidence.
“I’ve never seen a team come together like a family before,” Love said.
If Tiger Woods and Bubba Watson volunteered to be vice captains and subjugated their egos to be part of this revamped effort, you had to believe it was a step into a new frontier.
It all paid off. This marked the first time since 1975 that all 12 players earned at least one point (and 10 won at least two points) and the first time since ’75 that the Americans swept the opening session. The captain of that team? Arnold Palmer, whose golf bag from that year loomed on the 1st tee as inspiration.
“Arnold was looking over us this week,” Love said.
As for the finish, after a player who had been picked for the team only a week earlier scored the point that won the Cup, Love said, “If you wrote that in a movie, nobody would probably believe it.”
Moore, 32, was left shaking his head and at a loss for words. “It’s kind of hard to explain,” he said. “I didn’t even know I’d be here a week ago.”
But when teammates and new best friends Reed and J.B Holmes came out to cheer him on at the 15th green, with Moore two down in his match against Lee Westwood, he said he told himself, “I’ve got to try to flip this match around for my team.” He did just that. Not a long hitter by trade, Moore nevertheless reached the par-5 16th hole in two and sank a short eagle putt. Then he evened the match with a birdie at the watery par-3 17th. At 18, he hit the iron shot of his life in close and watched Westwood miss a par attempt. Moore lagged it close, and the match and the Cup were conceded. Pandemonium ensued, although compared to Ryder Cup celebrations past, it was pretty tame.
Moore was mobbed by his teammates—his other newly acquired lifelong best friends—after he shook hands with the classy Westwood.
It was the first U.S. victory since Paul Azinger captained the 2008 squad at Valhalla in Louisville and only the second since the Americans rallied improbably at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1999.
Love, the captain in 2012 when the Europeans made a stunning Sunday comeback from a four-point deficit, was chosen by a task force to turn around the Americans’ fortunes. His appointment came after an embarrassing loss in Scotland in 2014 and an even more embarrassing session of blaming, shaming and finger-pointing during the post-Ryder Cup press conference.
“It all started when some dumb-ass opened his mouth two years ago at the press conference,” Mickelson said, making a joke at his own expense since it was he who made clear his dissatisfaction with the team’s direction under captain Tom Watson. The result was a new system modeled after the one used by the Europeans. The vice captains would learn the team system and be groomed to take over, so when the reins were passed on the change would be seamless. Until then, the newly appointed captain would rip everything up and start over every two years with nothing learned, noted or gained from the experience.
But maybe this win was as simple as this: The Americans just played better. They ran the Euros off the field on Friday morning with a 4-0 sweep and led at the end of each session. They out-putted the Europeans, a reversal of form, and even had more fun, possibly a first. The week was capped with a session for the ages.
It began with McIlroy versus Reed, a sort of Ryder Cup Match of the Century (well, the 21st century, anyway). Their duel got emotional and heated early on amid some stellar play. After Reed pulled even at the par-4 5th hole with an eagle, they halved the next three with birdies and exchanged one-upmanship theatrics.
McIlroy made a putt and shushed the crowd, copying Reed’s gesture from Scotland. Reed made a putt and did an exaggerated bow, mocking McIlroy’s bow on Friday after he’d finished a four-ball win with an eagle. McIlroy responded with a monster 50-foot birdie putt at the 8th hole in which he held one hand to an ear and shouted, “I can’t hear you!” to the gallery. Moments later, Reed rolled in a 30-footer for a matching birdie and wagged a finger directly at McIlroy, then began flapping his arms and celebrating.
At that point, McIlroy could only laugh. As Reed came off the green, McIlroy was waiting for him with a fist bump and a smile. They exchanged pats, Reed kept grinning and the Ryder Cup not only enjoyed a moment of sportsmanship when things were heating up a little too much, but also a stretch of remarkable golf—an eagle and seven birdies over a four-hole span.
They had to cool off. “We didn’t run out of gas on the back,” a mildly offended Reed replied to a questioner, “we just went back to playing normal golf.”
Reed moved ahead for the first time after McIlroy bogeyed the 12th, went two up with a birdie at 16, gave a hole back with a bogey at the next and birdied the 18th for a 1-up victory, rendering Rory’s closer birdie attempt irrelevant. Reed seemed dazed after his donnybrook match finally ended with the day’s first point for the U.S. “It was hard,” he said. “I watched some of the coverage last night. They were saying Rory hadn’t been down in a match all week. I knew it would be tough. It was a fun and hard-fought match. Having my first team event at home was amazing. To play the way I did this week, I don’t really know what to say.”
The Europeans needed a big early rally to cut into the Americans’ three-point advantage and they responded by winning three of the first five matches, but captain Darren Clarke sent out four rookies in the last six games and all trailed most of the afternoon. So the Americans had a big finish cooking most of the day even if their front end failed, which it didn’t.
Jordan Spieth lost to Henrik Stenson, shaking hands with him in bare feet after Spieth hit into the hazard at the 16th hole and ended up conceding the match. In a match in which neither player had more than a one-up lead, Rickie Fowler edged Rose, who had a tough day with the putter.
It fell to Mickelson to score a criticial halve that helped inch the Americans closer to the magic number of 14½ points. He and Garcia played superbly. Reed-McIlroy may have been the Match of the Century, but this game was better. Neither player had more than a one-up lead. Garcia settled for a halve despite making nine birdies. The last came at the 18th hole, after Mickelson had rolled in a longer attempt of his own. “This was a hard-fought battle today, a lot of emotion,” Mickelson said. “We both played really well. It’s probably a fitting end to have a tie, but I wanted the W there. These guys [U.S. teammates] have played some incredible golf.”
Mickelson’s halve got the U.S. to a 13-10 lead.
“It was amazing,” Garcia said of a match that featured 19 birdies. “He played well, he definitely putted very well, and I played extremely well. I was out there to get a point, not half a point. I tried to deliver. I was a little bit short, but I was very proud of the way I played all week.”
When Brandt Snedeker closed out Andy Sullivan at the 17th hole, Moore needed only to halve his match with Westwood to secure the Cup. Moore hit it tight at the tough 18th and earned the full point.
There were tears in the eyes of many Americans. Zach Johnson said he woke up feeling sick on Sunday, but he gutted out a 4-and-3 victory over Matthew Fitzpatrick. “I was so happy for Davis and the vice captains,” Johnson said. “This was a real team victory. This is complete joy. I didn’t feel great this morning, but I had a peace. I just played. I hope this is just the beginning.”
At the closing press conference, the giddy U.S. contingent seemed like a team. They joked, they tossed champagne corks at each other when no one was looking—Rickie, you know you did. They sometimes answered questions that were directed at their teammates.
Tiger Woods was asked if this experience as vice captain made him want to be a future Ryder Cup captain.
“A vice captain?” Woods asked with a big grin. “Yeah.”
The journalist repeated the question, emphasizing “captain.”
Woods smiled again. “Yeah,” he repeated. “A vice captain.”
Woods gave a serious explanation, saying how much more complicated his role was than he thought it would be and how much work he watched Love put into his job. “I like playing,” Woods said.
The next U.S. team won’t have the pressure that this one had, though as they prepare for the 2018 event in Paris, the Americans will most certainly be reminded that they haven’t won on foreign soil since Love holed that putt at the Belfry 23 years ago. “Well, the thing is that we need to build on this,” Mickelson said. “Otherwise, it’s all for naught. We created a very solid foundation. For us to go to Europe and try to win the Cup in two years will be a whole different feat that’s going to require a whole different level of play, of solidarity, of fortitude. It’s great that we had success this week, but it’s about a multitude of success for decades to come.”
A champagne cork popped loudly, interrupting Phil. Love was the guilty party. “That’s my cue to shut up,” Phil said with a chuckle.
The members of the U.S. team at long last had something to laugh about. Make that Team with a capital T.