SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Well, here was the Ryder Cup, apparently being decided a day early.
In a matter of moments, three of the four matches went final on the massive electronic leaderboard.
Spotting the update, European captain Padraig Harrington whispered to two of his trusty lieutenants. They were trailing, 10-5, and this veteran of nine Ryder Cups knew all too well what that meant for this final game out on the course at Whistling Straits.
A 10-6 deficit? OK, tough, but doable. Of course it was. Harrington himself had lived through it as a player in 1999, when the U.S. rallied to win at Brookline, and he watched at home as the Europeans returned the favor with a monumental upset in 2012.
But 11-5? They were toast, historically speaking. No team had ever overcome a six-point deficit on the final day, and that’s what Harrington’s crew was facing as Scottie Scheffler sized up his 3-footer to go 2 up with two to play. When Scheffler coolly rapped in his putt, Harrington turned and walked away, expressionless, and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
By 6 p.m. Saturday, the Ryder Cup had unofficially been lost.
A few minutes later, the Americans’ full point was conceded, and they’d reached that seemingly untouchable 11-5 mark. They were all there now, celebrating, back-slapping: Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele. Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger. Collin Morikawa and Dustin Johnson. Caddies and wives. Assistants and the assistants’ assistants. They hugged. They goofed off during live TV interviews. They giggled at their inside jokes.
“We knew this session was an important one,” said U.S. captain Steve Stricker, and unfortunately, he was speaking from personal experience.
Stricker was on that final green with Martin Kaymer at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, the one when the Americans were leading 10-4 in the late stages of the Saturday afternoon fourballs and seemingly on the verge of a rout. That’s when Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald came alive late, stealing a point from Stricker and Tiger Woods. That’s when Ian Poulter grew his legend by burying putt after putt after putt. The Europeans had the momentum, and it carried them into the next day, when they won the first five singles matches. Kaymer delivered the decisive blow on that 18th green, touching off a rowdy celebration and leaving Stricker with an 0-4 record in his final cup and a haunting memory of what could have been.
Not one for spotlight-stealing speeches, Stricker said that he wouldn’t bring up the mistakes of 2012 to his team: “I just said that we’ve got another day. It’s not over yet. Let’s not rest on what we’ve done the first couple of days, and don’t be content where we’re at.”
But it’ll naturally be a focal point of Harrington’s final message – that they need to win nine of the 12 singles matches, just a half-point more than the Miracle at Medinah. “There’s no doubt that’s going to be very strong on our minds,” Harrington said. “These things can be done. But it’s more of an individual game tomorrow, and getting them to focus on winning their point. Go out there and play their game and win their point. That’s the biggest thing they can do to help the team.”
But this isn’t Medinah, not by a long shot.
That year, the Europeans had momentum. They had Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose and Poulter. They had a sleepwalking Woods and a questionable pairings lineup from captain Davis Love III.
This time, the Europeans have ... um ... well ... Jon Rahm, for sure. He has been spectacular, earning the most points (3 ½) of any sitting world No. 1, but where’s his help?
McIlroy is 0-3 and suffered the humiliation of being benched for the first time in his career. Viktor Hovland was a much-ballyhooed rookie who has delivered a mere half-point in four tries. The vaunted old guard of Poulter, Lee Westwood and Paul Casey is a combined 0-7. It’s been so bleak that Dustin Johnson (four) has nearly as many points as the entire European team combined (five).
In the press tent afterward, the Europeans tried valiantly to put on a positive spin.
“I’d like to believe that things even out,” Rahm said.
“I read a quote that if you’ve got a 1% chance, you have to have 100% faith,” Lowry said. “We really need to live by that.”
“Hopefully we can rally and give them something to sweat about in the middle of the afternoon,” McIlroy said.
“It’s going to take a beyond monumental effort,” Poulter said. “We need a couple of miracles.”
But given the current state of affairs, even more likely than a historic comeback is the Europeans suffering a colossal defeat. The largest margin of victory in the modern era is nine points (18 ½ to 9 ½). Stricker wasn’t aware of that mark, but it’s a good bet that this group of young, hungry and talented Americans, tired of hearing how miserable they’ve been in his biennial clash, will look to make history of their own.
They won’t be satisfied with a comfortable win, or a decisive margin of victory. That’s not how they’re wired.
They’ll want to leave little doubt and make a statement, hanging a record 19 points on the board.