MEDINAH, Ill. -- You never know which teacher lessons will stick with you. A teacher, for some reason, once told us that when you’re carrying liquid -- a bowl of soup, a cup filled too high with water, a coffee mug -- you shouldn’t look at the liquid while you walk.
Why? Because, she said, if you look at the water you will see it slosh and splash shake. And seeing that will make you shake. And the water will wade a little more, making you shake a little more, making the liquid move a little more, making you shake even more, on and on, until you spill.
Here’s the part that sticks with me: She said that you will always underestimate the power of tiny ripples. You will always believe that you are steadier than you think you are.
* * *
Sure, I thought the Ryder Cup was over. I was sure of it, in fact. The United States led the Ryder Cup 10-6 going into Sunday’s singles matches, meaning that the U.S. would have to drop eight of 12 to lose the Cup.
The U.S. Ryder Cup players lose eight of 12 singles matches? At home? With a rowdy crowd? On a golf course laid out for their styles and strengths? No chance. None. Even if the European players got hot (an unlikely outcome, considering the first two days) and even if the U.S. players got nervous, and even if things got tense, the U.S. could not lose eight of 12. No way, right?
How unlikely was it? In Vegas, if you bet $100 on Europe on Sunday morning, you could win $800 plus your original bet if Europe won. How unlikely was it? Well, break down the matches for a second. According to the World Golf Rankings, the U.S. was pretty heavily favored in six of the singles matches:
No. 2 Tiger Woods vs. No. 31 Francesco Molinari
No. 8 Webb Simpson vs. No. 26 Ian Poulter
No. 9 Jason Dufner vs. No. 25 Peter Hanson
No. 12 Steve Stricker vs. No. 32 Martin Kaymer
No. 13 Dustin Johnson vs. No. 35 Nicolas Colsaerts
No. 16 Brandt Snedeker vs. No. 28 Paul Lawrie
So that’s six of the 12. Three more matches featured somewhat evenly ranked players. And the three in which Europe had a clear advantage included the hottest Americans of the week, Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley. Everything was set up for a big U.S. day.
And the thing is, it didn’t need a big day. It didn’t even need a good day. It needed only to win 4 ½ of the 12 points. With the crowd roaring. With the Europeans reeling. With the golf course set up the way the U.S. team wanted. Of course I thought it was over. All day I thought it was over. Even when the Europeans began to make a move, I thought it was over.
It wasn’t over. So what happened? Yep. Tiny ripples.
* * *
Nobody was surprised when European captain Jose Maria Olazabal decided to load up the early part of his lineup with his best players. Well, take that back -- one person was actually very surprised. But that person was his team’s best player. More on Rory in a minute.
Olazabal decided to send his four best shots at victory -- Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose -- out first. McIlroy (No. 1), Donald (No. 3) and Rose (No. 5) are all ranked top five in the world, and Poulter so deeply loves the Ryder Cup and has performed remarkably well. These were Olazabal’s last, best hopes.
The idea was sort of a Battle of the Bulge strategy: Olazabal figured that if Europe could break through early, win some points, then maybe the other players on the team would play inspired and maybe the U.S. players would begin to panic a bit. Olazabal did not invent this strategy; he was victimized by it first. Back in 1999, at the Ryder Cup in Brookline, Mass., Europe led 10-6 going into the final day, and the U.S. loaded up the early part of the singles with their six best players. And all six won. And the U.S. came all the way back.
“We know how the momentum affected us,” said Sergio Garcia, who was playing that day. So was Olazabal. It was Olazabal on the green when Justin Leonard made the incredible putt that climaxed the U.S. comeback and prompted other American players to run on the green in celebration. Oh, he remembered.
And sure enough, Luke Donald -- who went out first -- won two of the first four holes against Bubba Watson. Europe was trying to make a statement. “I think it was important,” Donald would say. But it did not seem important then. It was just a tiny ripple. But this is the point. You will always underestimate those.
* * *
Rory McIlroy saw somewhere on Saturday night that he was teeing off at 12:25 p.m. This seemed logical enough to him. He slept in. He lounged around. It did not occur to him that this was 12:25 Eastern time … and that Chicago is in the Central time Zone.
And so, he left his hotel room at 11 a.m., only to be called and told in a panicked way: “You are teeing off in 25 minutes.” A helpful Chicago police officer was there, and when he was told what was going on, he said to McIlroy: “Do you get motion sickness?”
McIlroy said: “No. Just get me there.”
McIlroy was not sure how fast the car went. He just knows that it was fast enough. McIlroy reached Medinah with enough time to put on his shoes and rush out to the first tee. No practice time. No putting time. He had looked tired throughout this Ryder Cup. But suddenly, he looked quite excited … a near no-show at the Ryder Cup will get the heart pumping. The first ball he hit all day was his tee shot.
He birdied two of the first six holes to take a two-up lead against Keegan Bradley.
* * *
The coolest way to observe a Ryder Cup is through sound. Once the matches are rolling, you will hear sounds everywhere. Huge roars. Light cheers. Applause. Groans. U-S-A chants. Ole-ole-ole sing-song. It’s hard to tell where they come from -- they rattle up in the trees and come down all around you -- but after a while you learn to make out what they mean.
The sounds in the early part of Sunday’s golf suggested that everything was going OK for the U.S.A. It was a cool on Sunday afternoon. The merchandise tent was overflowing -- they must make millions. The Europeans were trying to charge, but the U.S. was holding its own. Webb Simpson had a two-up lead on Ian Poulter early. The Johnson boys -- Dustin and Zach -- seemed to be controlling their matches. Jim Furyk seemed to be outplaying Sergio Garcia. There was no reason to believe that anything unusual was going to happen.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when things started to turn. Maybe it was when Poulter squared up his match against Simpson with back-to-back birdies. Poulter was the heartbeat for this European team. He’s brash, he’s a bit goofy, he’s a Twitter fanatic, he loves attention, and he has never quite broken through.
But he is a fierce Ryder Cup player. His record at the Ryder Cup is otherworldly -- 10-3 coming into Sunday’s singles -- and on Saturday evening, after the sun set, he made a putt in the dark that gave Europe a half point and inspired his teammates. “That was when we thought [a comeback] was possible,” Olazabal would say.
The crowd tried to give Poulter the hardest time -- he loves engaging the U.S. crowd. But the harder time they gave him, the better he played. When he evened the match with Simpson, maybe there was something a little bit bigger rippling.
* * *
Seve Ballesteros’s memory was ever-present all week at the Ryder Cup. Ballesteros, probably more than anyone, created the Ryder Cup as we now know it, with all the intensity and fervor and pressure. He died last year. People talked about him constantly around Medinah. There were images of him wherever you turned, especially around the European team. And, of course, his favorite playing partner, Olazabal, was coaching the Europeans … and nearly crying every time Seve’s name came up.
Ballesteros was a force of nature. He saw the Ryder Cup as a cause … a chance to prove to everyone that players in Europe were just as good as American players, a chance to show just how fierce they could be. He did not just lead the European teams to victory, he told his teammates (and players, when he was a coach) that they were tougher than the U.S. players, that they had more heart, that they would win, that they had ALREADY won, but they just didn’t know it yet.
His positive force pushed players beyond their expectations. Could any of this have played a role on Sunday, even with Seve gone? I guess it depends what you believe. The European players did talk about feeling his presence. “I have no doubt in my mind that he was with me today all day,” Sergio Garcia would say. The way it ended for Garcia and American Jim Furyk, it’s not hard to imagine the ghost of Seve Ballesteros being nearby.
* * *
The ending of the Phil Mickelson-Justin Rose match was probably when everybody at Medinah could no longer deny that something enormous was brewing. Rose and Mickelson both played beautiful golf -- 10 birdies and an eagle between them -- and Mickelson finally started to get the better of it. He birdied the 11th hole, then birdied No. 14 to go one-up.
Then, on No. 16, Mickelson made a 12-foot par putt that fired up the crowd. It looked grim for Rose. But he made his 10-footer on top to halve the hole. At the 17th, Mickelson almost chipped in for birdie, while Rose was left with a 35- or 40-foot downhill birdie putt that Mickelson honestly believed would be very tough to two-putt.
It would have been a tough two-putt. The ball was going so fast that it almost certainly would have skated 10-feet by … you know, had it not hit the hole and gone in. Rose’s putt was so ridiculous that Mickelson started laughing. Then, for the second straight hole, he applauded. The match was all-square.
Then Rose made another big putt on the 18th hole for a birdie. And Justin Rose won the match.
Turning point? What’s usually true in sports, and maybe in life too, is that the turning point is just the point when everyone, all at once, notices what has been happening. When Rose won, the comeback was already in full swing. But his victory made the score 11-11. It was undeniable. And it was incredible.
But, incredible or not, it still seemed like the U.S. would win. Jason Dufner was beating Peter Hanson. Jim Furyk was beating Sergio Garcia. Tiger Woods -- whom U.S. captain Davis Love III had put LAST in his lineup for reasons that must have made sense the night before -- was beating Francesco Molinari. If things held, the U.S. would win the Ryder Cup 15.5-12.5.
If things held.
Don’t look at the water.
* * *
Jim Furyk has had the strangest year. On the one hand, he has played better golf than at any point in recent seasons. He led the U.S. Open late. He won a PGA tournament, and was in position to win another. He finished 15th in the Fed Ex Cup, which isn’t bad at all for a guy coming off a rough year. It was, in many ways, a big comeback year for a 42-year-old guy.
And yet … it was a terrible year. He blew the U.S. Open. He double-bogeyed the last hole to lose the World Golf Championship in Akron. He was good enough to get in position, but not good enough to win. “I’ll be honest,” he would say, “It’s been a very difficult year.”
Furyk led Garcia by one going to the 17th hole. Again, he was in position. There he hit it into the bunker, hit a good bunker shot that didn’t take a good kick, and then faced a 12-foot putt to halve the hole. Make that putt, and the worst he could have done was get a half-point. He missed the putt.
And then it was to 18, and perhaps the most painful sight of the golf year. Furyk faced a 10-or-so-foot putt to get a half point -- a crucial half point for the U.S. at that stage -- and he studied that putt for what seemed like hours. He just kept looking it, again and again, backing off, stepping in, backing off again.
This is what we want to see, of course, the best players in the world under the most intense pressure. We want to see what is possible. We want to see just how well human beings can perform when a half billion people are watching and caring. The trouble is, often we will see that human beings don’t succeed under all that heat. Furyk stepped up to the putt. He would say that he hit it exactly the way he wanted. But this is golf, and golf balls roll as they will. It did not go into the hole.
Garcia won the match. Europe won the match. And now there was no mistaking it. The United States team was staggered. And Europe saw a clear path to the Ryder Cup. And the spirit of Seve Ballesteros?
“There’s no chance I would have won my match,” Garcia would say, “if [Seve] wasn’t there.”
* * *
Germany’s Martin Kaymer has already had a spectacularly odd career. If you are not a moderate golf fan, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve never heard of him. And yet he has won a PGA Championship and, because of a quirk of the system, Kaymer was not so long ago ranked as the No. 1 player in the world.
Things did not go well at that point. Kaymer decided that he needed to broaden his game, and in doing so he sort of lost his game. He stopped winning. He stopped contending. He missed cuts. His ranking plummeted. Perhaps the low ebb came on Saturday, when he was benched for the entire Ryder Cup day.
And so, it was fascinating when Kaymer became the focal point of the Ryder Cup. For an hour at least, maybe more, it was clear to everyone that if Kaymer did not win his match with Steve Stricker, the Ryder Cup would come down to Tiger Woods … exactly what the Europeans did not want. “You have to get this point,” Olazabal told Kaymer. “I don’t care how you do it.”
On the 17th hole, Kaymer took the lead when Stricker missed a putt. Stricker is one of the greatest putters in golf history, but at this point the water was spilling all over the place. The U.S. players could not help but realize that they were on the brink of the worst collapse in Ryder Cup history. They were losing an un-losable lead. Stricker’s missed putt was right in line with the moment.
Then, the match went to the 18th hole and, after a series of mishaps, Kaymer found himself facing a reasonably difficult putt with the Ryder Cup on the line. Make it, Europe wins. Miss it, and Europe probably loses. Kaymer admitted to having some wandering thoughts -- including the thought of his mentor, Bernhard Langer, missing a similarly enormous putt at the Ryder Cup in 1991.
But he also said, “I wasn’t nervous.” And it was the way he said it -- as if he himself was surprised by this -- that suggests that he really wasn’t nervous. He read the putt quickly, something the Americans had stopped doing hours earlier. He stepped up confidently, something the Americans had also stopped doing hours earlier.
And he knocked in the putt. And Europe, ridiculously, absurdly, won the Ryder Cup.
* * *
Tiger Woods was in the fairway, waiting, when U.S. lost the Cup. His match was not over. The competition was not over. In fact, the U.S. was still in position to tie it at 14-14 -- but Europe had won the Cup because in the event of a tie, the Cup stays with the previous winner. Woods was up one, so the tie seemed likely.
But Woods did not care about the tie. Who wants a tie? Who cares about such things? Certainly not Tiger Woods. The only thing that has ever mattered to him is winning. He and partner Steve Stricker had lost all three of their team matches. Woods had actually played quite well in two of those matches -- brilliantly even -- but who cares? They lost.
So when he saw that the U.S. had lost the Cup, he packed it in mentally. People who review this Ryder Cup in their minds will wonder why Woods was put in the last slot in singles -- wouldn’t it have made more sense to get him in the early part of the day in an attempt to stifle Europe’s momentum before it got going?
Then, people will wonder why the unbeatable team of Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley was rested on Saturday afternoon. (Mickelson said that he basically asked to be rested because he didn’t think they were ready mentally or emotionally for that afternoon match.) People will wonder why Love kept Woods and Stricker together as a team when they were so ineffective. People will wonder why Love chose Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker as captain’s choices. Oh, people will wonder.
“Well, in hindsight,” Love said, with some sarcasm dripping around the word “hindsight,” “we would have done a lot of things differently, I guess.”
In any case, Woods had a putt to win the match, but he missed it. And at that point, he conceded the hole -- and a half point -- to Molinari and Europe. Afterward, there were some people bugged by this. By conceding that half point, and not even making Europe work for it, Woods had saddled the U.S. with a 14 ½-13 ½ loss in the Ryder Cup, rather than a more cosmetically pleasing 14-14 tie.
Woods didn’t care. “It was already over,” he said. “We came here as a team. This is a team event. And the cup was already retained by Europe.”
The interesting thing is that Molinari had been tempted to concede the full point to the U.S. back when he and Woods were standing in the fairway. It was Olazabal who came out and told him not to concede. He said they needed to play to win until the end.
* * *
So did Europe pull off an amazing comeback or did the U.S. choke away a seemingly insurmountable lead? The answer, I suppose, is both. Europe played great. Justin Rose’s last three holes represented one of the great finishes in the history of golf. Ian Poulter’s force of will, Luke Donald’s flawless play, Rory McIlroy’s race to the opening tee … these are all the stuff of legend.
But the U.S. did give plenty away. Matt Kuchar had a terrible day in his loss to Lee Westwood. Webb Simpson opened the door for Poulter with mistakes. Furyk and Stricker missed big putts. The U.S. won six fewer holes by birdie or eagle, and lost four more holes by bogey. They weren’t good enough.
I think, all in all, they were swallowed up by the Ryder Cup. I don’t think a single one of them thought they could lose it before the matches began on Sunday. Sure, they reminded themselves and each other not to get overconfident, not to lose focus, not to get ahead of themselves. But I don’t think they really believed that Europe could win eight of 12 matches. Who could?
And, yes, I think they underestimated the power of tiny ripples. One missed putt led to another. One great European shot led to a second. One roar muffled led to another until, as Justin Rose said, “there were stretches of time when it was quiet out there.” It built so slowly, and I’m sure every step along the way Davis Love and the rest thought, “We’ve got this under control.”
This is the thing that the teacher said about carrying the glass of water. It seems under control. The ripples get bigger and bigger without you noticing. And by the time you do notice, it’s too late.