MEDINAH, Ill. – If Paul Azinger famously “cracked the code” at the 2008 Ryder Cup, Jose Maria Olazabal’s crew simply seems cracked, adrift in an abyss of missed putts and rapidly waning opportunities.
Through 16 of 28 matches the winners of six of the last eight biennial pond scrums fell behind on Day 1, lost ground in Saturday’s foursome session and did nothing to help their chances in the afternoon matinee, splitting fourball play to fade into a 10-6 chasm that few this side of the Atlantic Ocean figure they can claw out.
Obituaries before the doctor calls it are always risky, but as New York Yankee great Yogi Berra famously opined, it’s getting late early.
“That gives us a chance. It’s been done before,” captain Olazabal said. “Things have not been going our way, especially on the greens, and why couldn’t things go our way tomorrow?”
It’s not impossible. The largest comeback in Ryder Cup history was from 10-6 in 1999 at Brookline, but that was a home game with captain Ben Crenshaw famously prognosticating “something special.” The Europeans have neither the friendly confines nor “Gentle Ben” to wag his finger for them on Sunday at Medinah.
Just once in the modern era has an American team gone into Sunday singles with a lead and not won the cup (1995), and as the U.S. flags piled up on a leaderboard already heavy with red, white and blue that reality hung heavy on the Continent’s best and brightest.
Critical analysis is best served after the main course, but in this the European woes can be identified regardless of Sunday’s outcome. It was all there etched into Paul Lawrie’s face as his 3-footer for birdie at No. 10 raced past the hole. Slump-shouldered and hangdog, the Scot held his putter over his head and grimaced – a metaphorical “tap out” following one too many misses.
“This is a putting contest, always is,” figured former European Tour player and short-game guru Mark Roe earlier this week. Through two days the elephant in the Continent’s team room is when did Europe start putting like the United States? Well, previous U.S. teams, not this bunch of flat-stick wielding flat bellies.
With the exception of Ian Poulter, gone are the magicians who charged in putts from Celtic Manor to The K Club. Graeme McDowell, the hero of the 2010 Ryder Cup and considered one of the game’s best clutch putters, opened his morning foursome match on Saturday with a missed 10-footer for birdie at the first and from 7 feet at the second. Fifteen holes later his playing partner Rory McIlroy failed to convert a birdie attempt from 10 feet. Bookend blows, and things didn’t get any better for the Ulstermen or the Europeans.
“Our boys are not making the putts,” Olazabal said. “It’s true that, you know, some of them haven’t performed to their expectations.”
For the Europeans, that fall chill in the Chicagoland air was a vivid reminder that this was not the halcyon days of the famed “Spanish Armada” of Olazabal and the late Seve Ballesteros. Combined, the Spaniards went 8-1-2 in team play, including a perfect mark in 1989, and solidified Europe’s dominance in the matches.
It’s not as though Ballesteros and Ollie won every match they played, it just seemed like they did and that was enough to give a decade of American captains insomnia.
McDowell and McIlroy, widely considered the side’s toughest draw, were 1-2-0 together and Ollie is sure to be pencil whipped by arm-chair quarterbacks for his benching of Poulter following a Day 1 foursome victory with Rose.
From outside the team room, the Europeans seem to have lost that familiarity, that fire that has turned this grudge match into a one-sided affair of late, which, all things considered, may be a sign of the times.
As more Europeans migrate full time to the PGA Tour and life in America so goes the Continent’s esprit de corps. Half of the European team lives at least part-time in the U.S., if not exclusively in Florida, and plays a bare-bones European Tour schedule.
The days of players traveling en masse to far-flung European Tour destinations is a thing of the past, casualties of the Tour’s FedEx Cup and warmer climes, and with it at least a piece of the fabric that made the Europeans such a formidable foe.
Life remains in the European side, both at Medinah and in the matches overall, but for this edition the buzzards are circling. Late Saturday afternoon across a cloudless horizon, a skywriter etched a wishful message, “Down but not out. Go Europe.”
Perhaps, but you didn’t need Berra around to know that it’s getting late early for Ollie & Co.