SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – For about 20 minutes - right around the time Rory McIlroy made an unsuccessful excavation attempt from a fairway bunker on the 18th hole - an unfamiliar air of discomfort descended upon Le Golf National.
After two days of decisive wins on the course and infectious chants in the stands, European fans had signed up for nothing short of a coronation. The sky-high grandstands surrounding the first tee and closing stretch were to be the site of a frenzied fête two years in the making.
But there was no mistaking the mounting sense of doubt that filled the air as Justin Thomas flipped his opening match on McIlroy and appeared to stoke the embers of a comeback that would have been felt from Paris to Medinah. The thousands of fans circling the final green, the ones who had arrived only with plans to toast their squad by sunset, were asked to do some quick math to determine where exactly things stood.
But then Paul Casey delivered, and Ian Poulter went back to being Ian Poulter, and order was restored for what will now be remembered as one of the best Ryder Cup teams Europe has ever produced.
Any brief moments of insecurity were long gone by the time Francesco Molinari got drowned in a sea of spilled beer and raucous cheers on the 16th tee, having notched the decisive point to cap the best individual performance in European Ryder Cup history.
When we look back on these Paris proceedings, Molinari's 5-0-0 record will shine. But in producing a 17 ½ to 10 ½ rout that stretched beyond the margin two years ago at Hazeltine, Thomas Bjorn’s men delivered an emphatic result.
“It’s just the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” Molinari said. “By miles.”
The stars, by and large, got points when asked. The veteran captain’s picks exceeded every expectation. Even unheralded Thorbjorn Olesen took down Jordan Spieth in a match that was never close. Combine that with Jon Rahm’s singles win over a listless Tiger Woods, and every European contributed a full point along the way.
The group that came together not for country but under the flag of one unified continent put forth a team effort in every sense of the word.
“I think it’s very easy to sum it up. Some play five matches and some play two matches, but they all contribute,” Bjorn said. “I’ve played in many Ryder Cups, and I don’t care how many matches I play in as long as we win. And I think that’s what it’s all about.”
Bjorn’s 1997 debut at Valderrama became a frequent talking point this week, with the Dane recalling his being benched by Seve Ballesteros for the entire first day. He ended up only playing twice but delivering 1 ½ points en route to a narrow European victory.
It was the sort of experience that came to influence his stint as captain. Bjorn entered with a calculated plan but also retained some flexibility, keeping countryman Thorbjorn Olesen out of action all day Saturday to make room for the unexpected success of Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood. The crucible of these matches can send individuals and their emotions in myriad directions, but Bjorn only seemed more poised as the pressure rose.
“This team was relentless in its pursuit of excellence. We ticked every box we could control all week long,” said Justin Rose. “Thomas didn’t fill our week with pointless team meetings. He trusted us to be 12 players that would come together, and today trusted us to be 12 individuals.”
Those individuals did have to work a little harder than they may have hoped after starting the day with a four-point cushion. It seemed plausible at one time that the Americans could win each of the first six matches, turning a 10-6 deficit into a possible 12-10 lead.
But Bjorn rounded his squad out with a quartet of seasoned veterans, and one by one those additions proved their merit at the tournament’s most pivotal stage. Casey held on for a half point against Brooks Koepka, and Poulter closed out world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson both added late wins, giving Bjorn’s picks a 9-4-1 record for the week.
“I think this validates a lot of what we’ve done this week. I think it validates Thomas’ decisions and his picks,” McIlroy said. “I think everyone bought into his philosophy, and bought into what this Ryder Cup means and why it’s so important, not just to us but to Europe and to golf in general.”
When Bjorn gathered the team Thursday night on the eve of the matches, he played a short motivational video and let the fire of the room speak up. Garcia and Poulter both addressed the team, as did vice captains Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood.
But the Dane let his preparation do the talking on his behalf, sending his team out with a cool sense of confidence that didn’t waver when they dug an early hole. It remained steady again in the face of early adversity Sunday, when the Americans got as close as a single point.
Time and again, Bjorn put his faith in his players, and then he took his hands off the wheel. As he put those hands around the trophy on the 18th green and lifted it skyward to spark the biggest ovation of the week, having kicked a decorated American team to the curb, he had all the validation he needed.
“We got it right this week,” Bjorn said. “This was the best team room I’ve ever been in. It was calm, it was determined, it was focused, it was fun. Everything that this Ryder Cup was, is what I think the Ryder Cup should be about for a European team.”