PGA players are famous for torturing themselves over putts. They read the green, walk behind the ball, line it up – then line it up again and again and again. American Jim Furyk is especially obsessive. And on Sunday, under crushing pressure on the 18th hole of the Ryder Cup, Furyk wasn’t about to break habit.
The torture set up an incredible drama. The Americans entered the last day of the Ryder Cup up 10-6, needing to win just four of the 12 singles matches – and halve (or tie) another — to win back the Cup. The last time a Ryder Cup squad came back from such a deficit was in 1999, in Brookline, Mass., when the American players infamously stormed the course after Justin Leonard sank a long putt on the 17th green. Since José María Olazábal — this year’s European captain — still had a putt to keep Europe’s hopes alive, the American celebration angered the Europeans.
Olazábal missed, giving the U.S. the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history. The Americans, however, pulled that one off on home soil. No way the Europeans could do it this year, at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago, right? The U.S. had led this thing wire-to-wire.
But the Europeans put the first four points on the board on Sunday, to tie it up 10-10. By the time Furyk prepared for that six-foot par putt on 18, Justin Rose of Great Britain sank two huge birdie putts on 17 and 18 to steal a point from Phil Mickelson. And Englishman Lee Westwood had easily dispatched American Matt Kuchar. The Ryder Cup was tied, 12-12.
Furyk needed this shot to have his match with Sergio Garcia. Like Mickelson, Furyk had given up a lead on 17. A miss would be devastating. It would give Europe its first lead of the entire tournament, and leave Europe just one point short of retaining the title (the Ryder Cup consists of 28 matches over three days. If the tournament ends in a 14-14 draw, the team that won the previous title retains the Cup. The Europeans won in 2010, in Wales).
With a miss, the Americans would need a few breaks to to win a title that, Sunday morning, seemed all but assured. Hell, Rory McIlroy even needed a police escort to show up eleven minutes before his scheduled tee time. McIlroy apparently thought he was playing at 12:25, which he was – in the eastern time zone. Problem: Chicago is on central time. The Europeans were a mess (not that the world’s top player needed much of a warmup. He won his match, over Keegan Bradley, who was unbeaten in his three prior Ryder cup matches at Medinah).
Furyk’s routine was painful. Before caddie Fluff Cowan gives Furyk his ball, Furyk takes two practice strokes. He places the ball down on his mark, steps behind it, steps up to it, looks down at the ball, up at the hole, down at the ball. One more practice swing. He puts his putter behind the ball … and steps off, before taking a stroll towards the hole.
He goes behind the hole, crouches down, and reads the green. Furyk strolls back to the ball, but stops about midway between the ball and the hole, to give it one more read. He steps up to the ball again, practice stroke, ready…before stepping off it again. Furyk takes fives steps backwards, crouches, and views the putt from behind the ball. Cowan leans over to say something to him.
Apparently, it wasn’t “PUTT ALREADY!” Furyk is crouching, crouching, still crouching…finally he gets up, takes two steps forward, one step back – did someone hit the rewind button? — before moving up to the ball. He grips the putter with both hands and holds it behind him. Well, he can’t putt like that. More study time. Five more steps back. Can he be more uncertain? Another crouch. Up to the ball. Another four steps back, and a crouch. Garcia looks spent.
This is it. Furyk is back at the ball, moves his feet closer together, positions his putter behind the ball. By the time he strikes it, Furyk had been futzing for nearly two minutes. The putt rolls to the right of the cup, and barely clips it as passes by the hole. Furyk hunches over, hands on his knees, as if he’d just been throwing up.
You felt sick for Furyk, one of the class players on Tour who has had a rough year. He badly pulled a tee shot late in the U.S. Open to cost him a chance at a title, and lost a tournament in early August after double-bogeying the final hole. Furyk was the only American on the Ryder Cup team not to win a tournament this year. The whole thing looked like a clinic in overthinking.
Europe was up, 13-12. After Steve Stricker missed a short put on 17 to give Martin Kaymer a one-up lead, Kaymar stuck a six-foot par putt on the final hole. That gave Europe the point it needed to retain the Cup. The players mobbed each other off the 18th green, and the European fans sang “Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!” Medinah sounded like a European soccer stadium. A teary Olazábal looked towards the sky, in memory of his mentor and friend, fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, who died of brain cancer in 2011.
England’s Ian Poulter, who kept the Europeans within striking distance with his terrific play on Saturday, and who won again Sunday, was particularly pumped: for Poulter, the Ryder Cup is like all four majors in one. No one takes it more seriously, so no one felt more exhilarated. Europe won one for the ages.