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A Miracle at Medinah

It tied the biggest comeback in Ryder Cup history, when the American team came back from a 4 point deficit to beat Europe in 1999.

It will forever be known as the “Miracle at Medinah”.

After the first 14 matches (in foursomes and four-ball), the American team held what looked to be an insurmountable lead, 10-4. In Saturday’s penultimate match, the US had its’ formidable veteran team of Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker playing two of Europe’s best, Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia. In a see-saw match which saw the lead change several times, the Europeans won 1-up on the last hole. It would leave Woods and Stricker winless in their three matches together.

The last match of Saturday produced not only the best golf but the greatest theater. Trailing by two holes with 5 holes left to play, the European team of World #1 Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter came to life against Jason Duffner and Zach Johnson. McIlroy won the 14th hole with a birdie before Poulter birdied the last four holes with an amazing display of clutch play.

That victory would still leave the European team trailing in the matches, 6-10, but it did give them at least a glimmer of hope. We were reminded of 1999 US Captain, Ben Crenshaw’s prophetic speech when his team faced the exact same deficit, when he would say “”I’m a big believer in fate, I have a good feeling about tomorrow. That’s all I’m gonna say”.

That next day, at Brookline CC, the Americans would stun the golfing world and come back for a seemingly impossible victory. At that match the pivotal hole was the 17th when Justin Leonard made a 45 foot putt to beat Jose Maria Olazabal. It was memorable for many reasons, but particularly so for Olazabal, who had to wait for a spontaneous US celebration to finish on the 17th green, while he still had a putt left to tie the hole. He would miss but it would be a memory that stayed with him.

The European Captain in 2012? Jose Maria Olazabal. On Saturday night, he would say “I have a good feeling about tomorrow. Momentum will come our way, why not tomorrow.”

Olazabal’s mentor and great friend was the incomparable, Seve Ballesteros who the golf world so tragically lost last year after his battle with brain cancer. Spain’s first Major Champion and golf icon, Ballesteros was perhaps best defined in his storied career by his brilliance in the Ryder Cup. The European team members all had images of Seve embossed on their golf bags and in his honor were all dressed in his trademark, ‘navy blue’, for Sunday’s matches.

But this was a home match for the much heralded American team who had been led by their fearless band of young stars. Major Champions, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson, TPC winner Matt Kuchar and recent Fed Ex Cup winner, Brandt Snedeker and long hitting Dustin Johnson. Combined these 6 great young players had accounted for the majority of the US’s victories in the first two days. It seemed as if there was a passing of the torch for the older generation of players to these young lions.

Golf can be a very fickle game.

Europe led Sunday’s singles matches with its best players. The notion being that if they could win some of the early matches that it would give the other players that much needed, ‘momentum’.

Led in the first match by former world #1, Luke Donald, they got exactly that. Donald disposed of Bubba Watson, 3 and 1 to start what would become an avalanche.

Poulter bested Simpson in the second match while McIlroy beat the previously undefeated Bradley in the third. Now the match stood at 9-10.

US stalwart and 4 time Major Champion, Phil Mickelson, was 1 up over English star, Justin Rose with two holes to play. Rose sunk an improbable 40 foot putt for birdie on the par 3 and followed that with another birdie on the last to win over a stunned Lefty, 1 up. The Europeans had won the first four matches and the Ryder Cup was now tied. Momentum indeed.

Unlikely European hero Paul Lawrie, who had ironically last played in the Ryder Cup 13 years ago at Brookline, dominated Brandt Snedeker and won their match 4 and 3. Europe now lead by one before Dustin Johnson would pull off the first US victory beating Nicolas Colsaerts, leaving the matches at 11-11.

Steady Zach Johnson who had played great golf for the US, righted the hosts’ ship and won his match with Graeme McDowell which allowed the Americans to once again reclaim the lead at 12-11.

Jim Furyk and Sergio Garcia had been locked in a back and forth match all day that left the veteran American 1 up on the 17th hole. Furyk would lose the last two holes to fall 1 down to Garcia. And it was tied at 12.

Unflappable American, Jason Dufner, who just continues to play superb golf (twice a winner this year on the PGA Tour), beat the lone Swedish player on this years’ European team, Peter Hanson and now the US led, 13-12.

English mainstay, Lee Westwood, won his match against Matt Kuchar, 3 and 2, and once again the Cup was tied. 13-13.

Both of the final two matches were also tied with two holes to play.

Steve Stricker seemed to have the upper hand against German, Martin Kaymer, but the normally sure putting Stricker missed a short par putt on the 17th hole to give Kaymer a 1 up lead. Both would hit the 18th green in regulation, and Stricker would hole a heroic par putt from 8 feet to force Kaymer to make his six footer to win the Ryder Cup. More ghosts. In 1991 at Kiawah Island, Bernhard Langer, the only other German to play in the Ryder Cup, missed a 6 foot putt on his last hole to lose the Cup to the US. Kaymer, who has been struggling with his game this year and had only played in one match before Sunday’s singles, seemed least likely a candidate for this occasion. His putt never left the center of the hole and this most unlikely of heroes, all of a sudden, had opened the gates of Troy.

Tiger Woods, playing in the final match against Italian star Francesco Molinari was one up coming to the last hole. Because the European team now had 14 total points they would retain the Cup (in the event of a tie, the team that last won keeps the Cup). Woods would make a careless bogey to leave their match halved and give the European team a 14 ½ to 13 ½ triumph.

The real winner of this event was golf itself.  One watched the drama unfold in ways that very few other endeavors can offer. In today’s pantheon of spoiled and overpaid athletes, these 24 players played for their countries. No money. Just pride. For the spirit of the greatest game. And they played with all of their hearts.

Somewhere up above, a dashing man in navy blue pants and matching sweater is clenching his right fist, in a Spanish salute.