CHASKA, Minn. – The 18th green Saturday offered a preview of what lies ahead at this increasingly contentious Ryder Cup.
As Lee Westwood lined up a 3-foot putt to steal a crucial half point for the Europeans, his concentration was broken by a series of well-timed taunts.
“Get it close, Lee!”
“It breaks to the right!”
Bottles dropped on the bleacher steps, causing even more of a ruckus, and a few hecklers cut straight to the point:
Bubba Watson, U.S. vice captain, tried to keep the peace, racing over to the left side of the green to silence the crowd. But they roared again moments later, after Westwood, already a twitchy putter, shrank in the biggest moment of the week and shoved the putt, handing a full point to the Americans and possibly dooming his team’s chances.
One final jeer ended the marathon day, with the U.S. ahead, 9 ½-to-6 ½, and Westwood bolting for the exit.
“Sleep good tonight!”
History is on the Americans’ side, and now so, too, is the momentum. Since 1979, only twice has a team lost the Ryder Cup when leading by three or more points entering Sunday singles.
Of course, one of those instances was in 2012, when a Davis Love III-led squad squandered a 10-6 advantage on the final day. Six of the European players here this week were a part of that remarkable rally at Medinah, and there likely will be no shortage of storytelling in the team room Saturday night.
“There is precedent here,” European captain Darren Clarke said.
But that team wasn’t dragging four years ago after Saturday fourballs. With six rookies on the team, Clarke had no choice but to ride his five stars for all five sessions. They pulled the team within three points, but now there is nowhere to hide for unproven players like Matt Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan and Chris Wood, who have each played only once so far. Five Europeans are pointless heading into Sunday.
One of Clarke’s biggest concerns is boosting the spirits of Westwood, the de facto playing captain, who at age 43 is playing in his 10th Ryder Cup. He’s never endured one like this, however.
After getting steamrolled in the opening match, Westwood sat himself for the next two sessions, telling Clarke, his longtime friend and former partner, that his game was a liability. He was inserted back into the lineup for Saturday fourballs, in a critical spot, and showed signs of life, rolling in four birdies. But he still unraveled late, when the pressure was at its most intense.
All square with partner Danny Willett against the American team of J.B. Holmes and Ryan Moore, Westwood whiffed a 4-foot par putt on 17 that gave the U.S. a 1-up lead heading to the last. Though he recovered and stuffed his approach shot, he left himself the ticklish 3-footer.
“It was a downhill, right-to-left putt that he would probably make nine times out of 10,” Clarke said, “but you add Ryder Cup pressure and he missed it. It happens in professional golf.”
Boorish fan behavior has unfortunately become a main topic of discussion at Hazeltine, though it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, with 50,000 fans, long days, warm sun and cold beer on tap. No player has been targeted more than Rory McIlroy, though some of the abuse has been self-inflicted. Sure, a few of the insults hurled at him have crossed the line – McIlroy even confronted a spectator walking to the eighth hole Saturday and had him ejected – but Europe’s biggest star has also relished playing the role of antagonist, screaming and scowling at the crowd. He conceded that he lost his cool a few times Saturday.
“The more they shouted,” he said, “the better we played. I hope they shout at us all day tomorrow.”
Can a few unruly fans taint this entire Ryder Cup? Doubtful. But several times this week, Spieth has turned to the crowd and played peacekeeper, waving his arms and pressing a finger to his lips and trying, he says, “to make sure everybody could play their game.”
“It’s unfortunate,” Clarke said. “You’re going to run into people like that now and again that say the wrong thing at the wrong time and the wrong place.”
And so, after winning the session, the mood afterward was decidedly different than 24 hours ago, when the Americans watched their 4-0 lead get cut in half. “Even though we were two ahead,” Love said, “a little bit of the air went out of the balloon.”
Now, it was the European team’s turn to be shaken and rattled.
Willett searched for answers to reporters’ questions. Westwood’s caddie, Billy Foster, stood next to the bag on the edge of the green, left hand on his hip. And McIlroy was off to the side, staring at a video board, his arms crossed. Seeing a replay of the Westwood miss, and the three-point deficit, he mouthed, “Wow.” Then he climbed the stairs back toward the clubhouse, absorbing a few more jeers along the way.