MEDINAH, Ill. — In the 1949 Ryder Cup, after Max Faulkner lost a key match to American Dutch Harrison 8-and-7, the scoreboard carrier at Ganton Golf Club in England offered a message to the crowd as he posted the score: “And no flowers, by request.”
The American side of this deliciously contentious Ryder Cup series has taken its lumps in recent times, losing four of the last five and six of eight to its European adversaries. As this 39th playing draws to a conclusion Sunday at Medinah Country Club, you can bet the Europeans aren’t requesting flowers, not just yet anyway. But when the 12 singles matches begin, Team Europe will be trailing 10-6.
The most commemorated comeback in Ryder Cup history occurred in 1999 with the Americans starting the finale trailing by four points. Fortified with trite words and extravagantly ornamental apparel, captain Ben Crenshaw’s crew erected an 8½ to 3½ miracle on Sunday, fleecing the Cup from Europe’s back pocket. European captain Jose Maria Olazabal must be at the sewing machine as we speak, designing baroque shirts.
But this challenge seems even more daunting for Europe. When the U.S. made its goal-line stand in ‘99, it did so in its own building, or its own Brookline Country Club. As the rally developed, they were supported by an imposing Boston crowd that shouted things like “kill ‘em!” and “bring out the body bags!”
If the Europeans are going to reprise the miracle, it will have to come on the road in Chicago. In other words, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the flower shop on the line.
That said, and thanks largely to late heroics from the possessed Ian Poulter, there is a chance. History tells us that. “Hopefully we can get off to a good start and see how (the crowd) reacts and then we’ll see what happens from there,” said Europe’s Sergio Garcia, who played on the wrong side of that ‘99 comeback.
Poulter certainly isn’t standing down. The colorful Englishman birdied the last five holes and six of the last nine on his ball to carry Rory McIlroy and steal a four-ball point from Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner.
Moments after American Steve Stricker missed an eight-foot putt that would have given him and partner Tiger Woods a halve (tie) with Garcia and Luke Donald, the Poultergeist drained one more birdie and made one more frightening face of jubilation.
“It’s intense,” McIlroy said. “He just gets that look in his eyes, especially when he makes one of those big putts, and he’s fit-pumping and he’ll just look right through you.”
Poulter has had a hand in three of his team’s six points. “We’ve got a chance, that’s all we can do,” he said. “It was crucial to get at least two points out of this session for the guys to go out tomorrow.”
Problem is, to envision a rally, you have to imagine where it might come from, and the overall performance of the Europeans to this point does little to inspire. Remember, they not only have to beat the Americans in singles, they must trounce them. As reigning champs, Europe can retain the Cup by getting eight points in the finale.
“Obviously, you play more for pride no matter what in this tournament,” said Justin Rose, who teamed with Poulter for a Saturday morning win. “So, you never know. Ben Crenshaw said it can happen, and I just really feel if we can get close, I think everything will hit and we’ll start to get a little bit frantic out there. The American team will feel that.”
Still, what looked to be a romantic tussle between highly-ranked equals has the potential for an anticlimactic finish. With the dynamic duo of Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley again lighting the fuse, the Americans whipped Europe 3-1 in morning foursomes on Saturday, carrying a stout 8-4 lead to the afternoon.
The Mickelson-Bradley team slam-dunked Lee Westwood-Luke Donald in foursomes, finishing the 7-and-6 burial early. The win was the third in succession for MicBradley, the stars of this show. Nonetheless, U.S. captain Davis Love III has been committed to an equal-opportunity rotation and he sat the sizzling pair in the afternoon, along with morning winners Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker.
Before the tournament began, golf fans drooled over the potential for a Sunday showdown between McIlroy, the No. 1 player in golf, and Woods, the No. 2. But it won’t happen. McIlroy will face Bradley in the third match Sunday, and Woods will guard the end zone, playing Molinari in the last tee time.
Golf’s two heavyweights have been something less than dynamic, although Woods has had his moments.
McIlroy is 2-2 in the tournament, thanks mainly to the unconscious display by Poulter. Playing with fellow Irishman Graeme McDowell, the 23-year-old McIlroy missed a crucial putt on No. 17 in the morning, which could have tied Furyk and Snedeker. Instead, the Americans closed things out. Perhaps fatigued by an eventful season, McIlroy has failed to deliver in a number of big moments.
For his part, Woods has had some tough luck. He played well Friday afternoon, but got no help from the struggling Sticker as the two succumbed to the magic of Nicolas Colsaerts. Woods sat Saturday morning — his first ever trip to a Ryder Cup bench. The 14-time major winner then started erratically in his four-ball return. He and Stricker fell four holes behind after nine.
Woods caught fire on the back, making five birdies, and nearly engineered a comeback. But he couldn’t hole a long birdie putt on 18, before Stricker missed from a modest distance.
“We fought hard,” said Woods, 0-3 for the event but 4-1-1 in Ryder Cup singles. “It just wasn’t enough. We gave ourselves two good looks on 18 and just didn’t get it done.”
Barring something spectacular, they should get it Sunday.