Final Ryder Cup singles match mattered to Olazabal

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Amid the mayhem of the closing moments at last week’s Ryder Cup, with Europe’s victory celebration in full bloom some 160 yards away and these matches over, in form if not function, Francesco Molinari cast a desperate glance in the direction of European captain Jose Maria Olazabal.

Without a hint of ambiguity, Ollie put both hands on the Italian’s face and informed him what should happen next, “Get focused and do your best,” the captain shouted above the chaos.

Martin Kaymer’s putt on the 18th hole moments earlier sealed a 1-up victory over Steve Stricker and assured the Continent a 14-14 tie, which under Ryder Cup rules meant Europe would retain the cup.

Olazabal, however, had no interest in the tie. Neither did Tiger Woods, who was 1 up on Molinari at the time. Therein rests the distinction that made Sunday’s anchor match such a surreal scene.

Unlike the Presidents Cup, which declares all matches halved in the event the outcome is decided before play is completed, they play them out at Samuel Ryder’s member-member.

“We both, the PGA of America and European PGA, feel that the Ryder Cup is made up of all the matches and even if the result of the overall trophy is known player records are part of golf and part of the Ryder Cup,” said Kerry Haigh, managing director of championships and business development for the PGA of America. “We don’t feel it is right or appropriate if everyone walks off the golf course when the Ryder Cup is done. Not fair to the golf or the fans.”

Woods and Molinari played their approach shots to the final green, which was fully engulfed in the European celebration, and after the American’s par attempt slipped past the hole he conceded the Italian’s par effort, which meant the two would halve their match and Europe would win the cup outright, 14 ½ to 13 ½.

“It was over,” said Woods, who failed to win a match for the first time in his Ryder Cup career (0-3-1). “We came as a team and the cup had already been retained by Europe, so it was already over.”

Molinari was of a similar mindset until being given his marching orders by Olazabal. If the captain wanted a win then he would honor that.

“I thought about giving him the halve on the fairway, but then the captain was there. (He) told me, it's not the same, winning or halving,” Molinari said Sunday. “I just tried to win the hole, to win the tournament, basically.”

It is a subtle distinction that is likely rooted in cultural differences. Americans, as a rule, have no use for ambiguity in sport. U.S. fans deplore gray in the record books and for Woods, as well as captain Davis Love III, there was no solace to be found in a tie.

In fact, the rule to play the matches out is listed in the captain’s agreement, which Love studied and was briefed on before the matches, but in the dark moments after Kaymer’s putt he had no use for small print.

“Whatever Tiger and Molinari do we don’t get the cup. We’re stunned anyway. I stood there thinking, ‘Why isn’t it over? Why isn’t it good-good?’” Love said.

Unofficial protocol suggests it was Molinari’s choice to concede the final match in the name of sportsmanship, although in the Italian’s defense it was the captain’s decision to press on despite precedent to concede the match.

At the 1969 matches Jack Nicklaus famously conceded a 2-foot putt to Tony Jacklin that resulted in a halve and the first tie in Ryder Cup history and just one of two draws in match history. In that instance a tie, which meant the U.S. retained the cup, was fine for everyone involved, yet on Sunday it seems Olazabal had a different plan.

Perhaps for Ollie, raised in a soccer, eh, football culture where nil-nil ties are a way of life, it was a distinction worth playing for. Or perhaps he was not clear on the rules, telling reporters this week, “I know some people might think Francesco should have given Tiger that short putt, but at the end of the day the rules are the rules. It was important to finish the match.”

Or maybe the Spaniard was searching for a measure of redemption following Europe’s loss in 1999 at Brookline, when bedlam ensued following Justin Leonard’s 45-footer for birdie with Ollie still facing a 25-foot birdie of his own.

The appalling American breach of etiquette aside, the difference between the two incidents was Leonard’s bomb ultimately guaranteed a half point (after the Olazabal miss) and an outright U.S. victory, 14 ½ to 13 ½, while Kaymer’s 6 footer at Medinah was for the tie. But at that point Love & Co. clearly had little interest in a consolation prize.

For Haigh, an Englishman and a longtime PGA of America official, the distinction between a tie and an outright victory is very real, albeit utterly lost on the American side late Sunday.

“There certainly is (a difference) from a score standpoint, but in terms of who retains the trophy, obviously that’s clear from the captain’s agreement,” he said.

Late Sunday at Medinah, Love, who was already starting to feel the wrath from armchair quarterbacks everywhere, was pressed for an answer. Why concede Molinari’s 4 footer? Why not play for the tie?

Resolute and, for the first time all week, clearly agitated with the line of questioning, Love wrestled with the notion for a moment, “I have one question, what were we playing for?” he asked reporters. “The cup and they got it.”

In this instance, former New York Jets head coach Herman Edwards had it right, “You play to win the game. Hello.”