When is a tie not a tie? When is a tie celebrated with the thrill of victory from one party and mourned with the agony of defeat from the other? When is a tie met with unequal and opposite reactions?
This is not an existential riddle on the theory of competition. It’s what can happen at the Ryder Cup every time – and almost did two years ago.
For those who have blocked the final day at Medinah from their memories, here’s a quick recap: The U.S. team entered Sunday’s singles matches ahead 10-6, but quickly started to lose momentum. Luke Donald won the first match for Europe, then Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy. All told, the Europeans won each of the first five matches on the ledger and three of the next six. When Martin Kaymer holed a 6-foot putt on the final green, it was all over. Europe had won the Ryder Cup.
Well, sort of.
With 14 points, Europe had actually only retained the Cup. Amidst the team’s tear-soaked hugs and rabid champagne-spraying and cries of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole…” one final match remained on the course.
Tiger Woods versus Francesco Molinari.
The previous night, in what can be viewed as either full confidence in his unassuming Italian ball-striker or front-loading his lineup, European captain Jose Maria Olazabal decided to place Molinari in the anchor position, setting up a singles rematch from two years earlier.
“It was actually great for me to see that he and all the vice captains had enough trust in me to put me in that position,” Molinari recently said in an email, “even if I knew that there was a big chance that the match could be over before coming down to our match.”
It’s a tenuous position, playing in that final match on a Ryder Cup Sunday afternoon. The available point could mean everything, the entire contest hinging on the outcome. Or it could mean nothing at all, fate being determined before the twosome has a chance to intervene.
While on the course throughout the day, Molinari tried to sneak a few peeks at leaderboards to figure out whether his point would be necessary.
“I remember definitely looking at one on the 11th fairway and seeing Tiger doing the same,” he recalled. “I did the math quickly and I saw that there was a chance for the match to come down to the last two games. I didn’t really get much info from the vice captains, only on the 16th fairway. Miguel Angel Jimenez came close to me after the tee shot and told me, ‘We need your point.’”
Some 25 minutes later, focused on his match while simultaneously trying to catch a glimpse of his teammate, Molinari watched Kaymer and opponent Steve Stricker up ahead on the 18th green.
“I was on the 18th fairway,” he explained. “It was hard to understand what was going on at first, because I first saw Stricker holing his putt and I didn’t know if it was for a win or a halve. Then I watched Martin putting his ball down and studying his putt, so I understood he could still win the point. When he holed the putt, it was a very strange moment because I could see everyone going mad in front of the green. I was watching them from a distance and obviously a part of me wanted to run down the fairway to celebrate with them.
“It took a lot of the pressure off, pretty much all the pressure I had.”
Europe had retained the Ryder Cup with what equaled the largest comeback in history. That was it. It was over.
Except … that wasn’t it. It wasn’t over.
Molinari was torn between running down the fairway and soldiering on, until his captain commanded that he wanted him to keep playing.
A win, Olazabal told him, would be better than a tie.
“I think there was a lot of confusion made of what happened next,” Molinari said. “I didn’t know what to do. ‘I was thinking, ‘Should we just pack in and not play the last? Should I concede the hole? Should I speak to Tiger to see what he wants to do?’ I turned towards Jose Maria, who was on the fairway in tears. He came close to me and said that I had to keep focused on what I was doing because the match was not over yet and if I could win the hole, we would have won the match instead of halving it.”
Here’s where the situation gets a little sticky. According to those on the European side, a win was better than a tie, even if the end result was the same. However, according to those on the U.S. side, a loss was the equivalent of a tie, because both ensured they wouldn’t take the Cup.
And so, amidst a jubilant celebration for Europe and shell-shocked lamenting for the U.S., the final match continued.
Woods was 1 up on the final hole, but unceremoniously made a bogey. That left Molinari with a 4-footer for par to halve the match and give Europe a 14½-13½ victory. Before he had a chance to hit the putt, though, his opponent offered a quick, “That’s good.”
Woods was asked about the concession directly after the match and explained his rationale thusly: “It was over. We came as a team and the Cup had already been retained by Europe, so it was already over.”
“I was surprised,” Molinari said, “but again, after Martin had holed his putt there was a surreal atmosphere around us. I wasn’t really expecting anything as it was a whole new situation for me.”
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe no one would have cared whether the teams tied if the final result was the same anyway. Maybe conceding that final putt simply saved the competition from any messy asterisks which would have been necessary for the history books.
A tie in this circumstance wouldn’t have really been a tie. It would have caused unequal and opposite reactions from the separate parties. Lost in the mixed celebration and sadness following the last Ryder Cup, though, is the story of how it very nearly happened this way.