Right Field: Believing the unbelievable
Thanks to Europe's thrilling victory in the Ryder Cup, we can now all say, with hand on heart, that nothing is impossible
Unbelievable. The word has been so overused in sports it's basically diluted. Every game and every match we hear about unbelievable pressure or an unbelievable catch, shot or pass. But there is only one thing that makes something unbelievable; you don't believe it.
Some people actually think Americans are unbelievable and not necessarily in a good way. What is believable though is that in business, politics, entertainment or sports, there is no question the US is the pre-eminent and most prevalent culture of our times. And just in case you may have forgotten this, Americans are quick with a nauseating chant of Yew-S-A to remind you. No country does wildly patriotic and jingoistic overkill quite like the Americans. The bombs bursting in air, the stars and stripes waving madly, the unabashed, aggressive and deafeningly vocal crowd - it's quite the intimidating pit and, despite the gorgeous and serene environs of suburban Chicago's Medinah Country Club, the 2012 Ryder Cup was not for the faint of heart.
Golf's biennial showdown between the Americans and Europeans has long been riveting theatre, even for those who are not fans of the game. Watching no-names from places like Denmark and Sweden going toe to toe with renowned and exalted PGA stars was the classic David versus Goliath. The Americans could usually only name two or three players on the European squad. "For us," said former US captain Paul Azinger, "the Ryder Cup is on our minds every couple of years. But for the Europeans, it's in their blood forever."
When largely anonymous European players came up against the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tiger Woods they were incredibly motivated. They had something to prove. But not anymore, because Europe's best players are also the world's best players.
Four of the top-five ranked players in the world are European. Well, sort of. "We used to have all 12 players fly out together from London for Ryder Cup matches in the US," said Scotland's Colin Montgomerie. "This year there were only three players on the flight." The rest came from their residences in Florida, Arizona and Chicago. Eight of the 12 golfers on the European team play primarily on the PGA Tour, where the money is significantly better and they can play year round.
There are zero players from the US team playing in Europe so in that respect, the US had already won before a single ball was struck. It was pretty obvious over the first two days that the American Euros were not nearly as hungry as their less heralded predecessors from days gone by. Backed by massive and boisterous galleries, the Americans were pounding the Euros early. The Ryder Cup brings out a different golf fan and that is not necessarily a bad thing. This was a bloodthirsty patriotic crowd who would cheer loudly when a European hit a ball into the water or sand. After all, the Americans had only won two of the past nine Cups and made it abundantly clear they were going to use their home-course advantage to its max.
There was fist pumping and strutting galore by the US team and the crowd ate it whole. There is not an NFL game that could match the exuberance and noise of the swelling mob at Medinah and why not? Their boys were kicking some Euro butt and the fans let them know it.
"I didn't get abused, but you get 'top it, shank it, you're a loser', stuff like that, every shot you play," said Scotsman Paul Lawrie. When the dust finally cleared on Saturday, the US had a commanding 10-6 lead and with 12 single matches to play on Sunday, they needed only 4½ points to win it.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the massacre. The Euros remembered they were Euros. Thanks to the steely resolve and red-hot putter of English veteran Ian Poulter, the boisterous cheers in the swelling galleries were soon giving way to murmurs and mumbles. This can't be happening, can it? In a remarkable turn of events, the Europeans pulled off the most improbable upset on the most hostile terrain. It is simply one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sports. The sheer drama of the last two matches alone was sport at its riveting apex and why we own TVs.
When the victorious European team landed in London with the Ryder Cup trophy this week, only three players were on it. In 2014, Gleneagles in Scotland will play host and I would like the Americans to win this one. They are hungrier and have something to prove. But as far as the 2012 Ryder Cup, it proved one thing: the unbelievable is actually believable.