Hlas column: Great golf was the loudest statement in a raucous Ryder Cup amphitheater

Zach Johnson part of 10 hours of some intense sports drama

Mike Hlas
Published: September 29 2012 | 8:05 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 1:12 am in
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MEDINAH, Ill. — In the twilight of an autumn Saturday evening here, there was chanting and there was singing.

It wasn’t coming from the fans of the United States’ Ryder Cup team, though the Americans take a 10-6 lead into Sunday’s 12 singles matches.

Though fans of Team Europe are in the minority here, they had a moment of euphoria as they left the Medinah Country Club grounds as darkness set in Saturday.

“We’re singin’ a song, walkin’ along, walkin’ in a Poulter wonderland,” some Brits sang over and over, to the melody of “Winter Wonderland.”

“Do they know what 10-6 means?” an American fan quietly asked a companion in disgust.

Well, Englishman Poulter transcended 10-6. After partner Rory McIlroy made an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 13, playing-partner Poulter birdied the last five holes. The pair rallied from 2-down with six holes left for a 1-up victory over Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner in the last of the afternoon’s four four-ball matches.

That, combined with the win of Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald over Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods that was played directly ahead of them, salvaged two points for the euros and left Sunday's final result at least somewhat in doubt. The U.S. once came back from a 10-6 hole on Sunday to win, in 1999.

“Those last two matches were massive,” said Europe captain Jose Maria Olazabal. “That keeps us just a chance. It’s been done before in the past. And well, tomorrow is going to be a big day.”

The finish at least momentarily tapped the brakes on a runaway American victory in about as big of a home-course advantage as you’ll see in this sport. The Chicago crowd have drowned out their foreign friends for two days, and you got a sense that many were swimming in beer as the day got longer.

“Ian, my wife has the same shoes!” someone yelled at Poulter early in his afternoon match. Poulter was sporting footwear that matched his lavender shirt.

When Garcia stepped back from a 20-foot putt on the final hole of his match because a jet was flying overhead, many of the thousands of fans within sight of him jeered. It was poor behavior on the gallery’s part, to say the least.

But predominantly, the passion shown by the crowds have been a positive addition to the intensity and the dramatics. Then, of course, there was the golf itself.

As the Johnson-Dufner match reached the 16th green, fans were going nuts just a short distance away because Woods’ tee shot on the par-3 No. 17 over Lake Kadijah landed four feet from the cup.

Woods and Stricker had shaved a 4-hole deficit after nine holes to one hole with two to play, and looked in great shape to tie the match on the 17th green. But then Donald followed Woods by leaving his ball a foot from a hole-in-one.

After they had made their way to that green, Poulter rolled in a 20-footer for birdie on 16 to give he and McIlroy their first lead of the match. They had trailed for the first 14 holes, and tied the match on 15.

More 17th-hole fireworks happened after Donald and Woods cleared out. Poulter’s tee shot there settled 10 feet from the hole. Johnson topped that, leaving himself a 5-footer. Poulter made his putt. Johnson made his to keep the match alive.

As darkness approached and wind-scattered leaves covered sections of the fairway, all four players reached the green of the par-4 18th in two shots. After McIlroy missed his birdie putt, Johnson ceded honors to Dufner, who had a 4-footer. He made it, putting the heat on Poulter, who had 12 feet left.

Had Poulter missed, the match would have finished all-squared. Dufner and Johnson would have salvaged a half-point in the team score.

“This is good right here,” said Mike Bender, Johnson’s swing coach, as he watched just off the back edge of the green. “This is the way it ought to be.”

Poulter rolled in the putt. A moment later, Johnson doubled over in disappointment over the result. He and Dufner had lost for the first time in three matches here. They never trailed in defeating Nicolas Colsaerts and Sergio Garcia in foursomes Saturday morning, 2 and 1.

But Johnson and Dufner didn’t really lose. They just got beat, by a man with lavender shoes and a ton of game and grit.

“They birdied the last six holes, he birdied the last five holes,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t like we gave it to them, either. That was just a buzz saw at the end.

“Nothing you can do, just kind of tip your hat, shake his hand.”

This event has wowed me not because of the all the pomp and so-called patriotism that goes with it. Rather, it’s been a pleasure to see 24 millionaires who spend the rest of the year as solo acts care so much about this team thing.

Maybe everyone in this life wants to be part of something bigger than themselves.

For Johnson, it was 10 hours of golf in one day, much of it grand.

“It was fantastic,” he said. “I could not have enjoyed it any more.

“This is why we practice. This is why we play.”

Two former U.S. presidents named George Bush were here to watch. So were some people who wrapped themselves in flags even though they have never been politicians.

Maybe all 40,000 spectators showed up for a spectacle unlike any other in golf, but many surely came to see greatness in the midst of pulsating pressure. They weren’t let down.

“Sometimes you have to give it everything,” Poulter said. “And then some.”

 
 
 
 

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