MEDINAH, Ill. -- Saturday offered one of the cooler moments I have seen in sports. It probably wasn’t an important moment, at least not in the long run. It probably won’t go down in history or anything. But it was cool because, well, because it kind of got to the heart of what’s cool about sports.
As you might know, the United States has a 10-6 lead over Europe in the Ryder Cup heading into Sunday’s singles matches. This, more or less, means that the Ryder Cup is over. Yes, a team has come back from that big a deficit before -- I was there, 1999 at Brookline, when the U.S. won 8½ of the 12 available points and won the Ryder Cup. And, even more recently, in 2006, Europe actually won the singles 8½-3½ (to win the Ryder Cup in a blowout, 18½-9½). So it’s “possible.”
But it’s only on the vague edges of “possible,” sort of like the car that drives itself or watching a sporting event without seeing a commercial for “Two Broke Girls.” For one thing, this Ryder Cup is in the United States. With the intensity and energy of the American crowd, it stretches the imagination that Europe could even win the singles competition, much less with eight of the 12 matches, which is what it would take to retain the Ryder Cup.
For a second thing, the U.S. has historically been better than the Europeans in singles. The U.S. has won nine of the 14 singles competitions since the Ryder Cup became competitive. The U.S. -- both sides would probably agree -- has the better players overall.
For a third thing, the European players still haven’t figured out how to play Medinah. If you want to talk about the MVP of the U.S. team, you would start with Keegan Bradley (more on him in a second), but you would have to also consider captain Davis Love III, because he had this course set up in such a way that it has confounded the Europeans. They have been in a strategic fog, they have not known how to get the ball close and, most of all, they simply have not made putts on these fast and tricky greens.
The best example of this confusion is probably the 15th hole, a 300-or-so-yard par 4 that is drivable, if you want to take the chance. The Europeans have looked at this hole like it was some sort of crop circle; they had no idea what to make of it. First day, they just kept plunking drives into the water. Then they tried laying up, and that didn’t work either. It has been like this all over the course. The idea that overnight they will suddenly get this course well enough to win eight of 12 singles matches … let’s just call it unlikely.
Of course, it will still be worth watching … for one thing, just to watch Keegan Bradley play. Golfers, by their nature, do not do excitement very well. Oh, they might pump a fist now and again, scream “Come on!” after making a putt, shout out “Be right!” when the ball’s in the air. But generally speaking, golfers don’t emit enough energy to get the viewer off the couch, even to get another beer. It’s just not that kind of game.*
*Have you seen this Comcast commercial where they use golfer Jason Dufner to demonstrate just how fast their high-speed Internet is? The point seems to be that their Internet connection is 100 times faster than the competition’s, and so they ask what Dufner would look like if he played at the competition’s pathetically slow speed. It shows him getting old, growing a beard, and so on. It’s a funny concept except for one thing: Jason Dufner at FULL SPEED is still playing golf. You probably don’t want to compare anything FAST to golf.
Keegan Bradley is different. For one thing, he’s edgy even in regular competitions -- he’s constantly stepping in, stepping out, backing up, moving back, he plays hokey-pokey golf. He compares his constant energy to a tennis player waiting for a serve, bouncing around, trying to get the blood pumping. It’s distracting when you first see it, but over time I must admit that I’ve come to enjoy it. The guy’s in motion. He’s into the moment. Before every shot, he’s like a boxer getting ready for the bell. I kind of wish he’d punch himself in the head now and again.*
*Am I the only one who sees Keegan Bradley and thinks about ESPN’s Bill Simmons? Maybe I am. I’m not sure they look so much like each other, but for some reason I think this all the time. I’m hopeful that if the U.S. wins the Cup, that Bradley will make a “Shawshank Redemption” reference and will get into a long discussion about the Celtics (whom he did mention on Saturday).
Anyway, Bradley's like this all the time. But this week? He’s up to DEFCON 1. He’s bouncing, jumping, screaming, punching the air, running around -- it’s amazing. The Ryder Cup means a lot to every one of these golfers, but as mentioned earlier, golfers work very hard to suppress their feelings, to stay calm, to not show up anybody. So, it’s hard to tell what Jim Furyk is feeling out there (I think he pumped his fist) or Steve Stricker (he seemed to bow his head) or Lee Westwood (I thought I saw a grimace).
And then you see Bradley, every bit of his emotion on the surface, ready to explode in celebration or anger, all the time, right on the edge. It’s pretty great. This is his first Ryder Cup, and he is so excited, I believe that he’s only barely managed to keep himself from spontaneously combusting.
“I went and watched Bubba Watson tee off,” he said. “And he got the crowd going. And I couldn’t contain myself. I was just so excited and so proud of him.”
And of course, it hasn’t hurt that Bradley has been absolutely amazing. He and partner Phil Mickelson went 3-0 in the team competition, and they absolutely destroyed their opponents in all three matches. And what was great was that Mickelson was so obviously feeding off the spirit and fire and energy of Keegan Bradley.
“He wants me to get the crowd fired up and to get the crowd excited,” Bradley said. “To get HIM excited.”
What a blast. Everybody on the team -- with the exception of Tiger Woods and Stricker, who lost all three of their matches -- seemed to be drawing hope and enthusiasm from Bradley. Before the Ryder Cup began, people kept asking Mickelson to talk about the importance of experience. And Mickelson kept turning the question around. He downplayed experience -- heck, before this week he was 11-17-6 in Ryder Cup play, so his hasn’t been an especially good experience. No, he said it was youth and passion and dynamism that could make the difference. And, so far, Mickelson absolutely nailed it. Other rookies -- Webb Simpson, Jason Dufner and Brandt Snedeker -- have all played outstanding golf, and have led the U.S. to its commanding lead.
And yet, none of them provided the amazing moment I referenced at the top.
At the end of Saturday, when the sun was setting on Chicago, when it was dark enough that iPhones glowed like lightning bugs, Europe’s Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy came to the last hole, up one. McIlroy has looked exhausted this week. Everybody has talked about it. He has hit some good shots, but not as many as usual, and his putting on Saturday was off.
But Poulter was a whirlwind. He’s not young like Bradley (Poulter’s 36), and he’s not a blur of energy. But he loves this competition. LOVES it. When the day began, he was teeing off with Bubba Watson, and he begged the crowd to scream while he teed off. He wants the boos. He wants the taunts. He thinks that this is what the Ryder Cup is about. The guy can be a flake, he can say things that are a bit off, he can wear pants that would frighten zombies, but he makes this Ryder Cup infinitely more fun. And -- probably not a coincidence -- he’s also a great Ryder Cup player.
In any case, the Europeans came to the 18th hole up one shot, and Dufner made a birdie putt to give the U.S. a chance at a half point. Huge roar. Europe’s chances at 10-6 are slim. Its chances at 10½-5½ would have been virtually nil. Everybody knew this. But Poulter had a 12- to 15-foot birdie putt to give Europe the match.
Poulter was already playing out of his mind; he almost single-handedly dragged McIlroy around the course (something McIlroy readily admitted). But this was the putt. He studied it closely. The crowd held its breath. He stepped over the putt. He putted.
And that’s when I saw one of the coolest things ever. Or heard it. This is obviously a hugely pro-American crowd. There were American cheers all day and well into the night. If you bought a hot dog at one of the food stands on the course, someone would chant “U-S-A” at you. Bad shots by the Europeans were cheered; great shots by the Americans brought some of the loudest roars imaginable. This is how it is at Ryder Cups, and this is how it should be. In Europe, it is exactly so.
So, Poulter putted. And he knocked it in. And here was the cool part -- EVERYBODY cheered. It wasn’t a huge roar, like when Tiger Woods hit his shot close or when Dufner knocked in his putt. It was a different kind of cheer, something more sudden, something instinctive, from the gut, something like, “Holy cow, did you see that? He made it! All that pressure and he made it!”
The cheer died much more quickly than it would have had Poulter been an American, of course. But that’s not the point. The point is that in that instant when the ball dropped, the feeling was jubilation. It was as spontaneous and reflexive as a laugh. Ian Poulter has tried to play the bad guy here because he thinks that’s fun. And people have had a lot of fun rooting against him.
But when he made that tough putt, the one that gave Europe the slightest bit of hope, under all that pressure, on foreign soil, well, people couldn’t help themselves. The cheer emerged before they could even pull it back in. I have a friend I sometimes go to games with, and every so often he will turn to me and say, “Sports are awesome.” It’s an inside joke. But you know what? They really are.