By Kevin Crook
The camera caught a couple very interesting exchanges that could have very easily gone unnoticed amongst the revelry and shock that surrounded the 18th green soon after Martin Kaymer’s putt to defeat Steve Stricker delivered the death blow to the Americans at the 39th Ryder Cup Sunday afternoon.
After Kaymer’s putt fell and the television cameras went away from the Europeans embracing and celebrating in front of the 18th green, one camera showed a very quick glimpse of European Captain Jose Maria Olazabal with his hands cupped around Francesco Molinari’s face as he stood in the 18th fairway. At first glance one might have thought Olazabal was consoling Molinari, who seemed oddly disconsolate for a man whose team had just pulled off arguably the most improbable comeback in the history of Ryder Cup golf. One could assume Molinari was feeling kind of “Stricker-Furyk-ish” because of his skulled chip shot on the previous green that had handed Tiger Woods the one-up lead in their match. For 10 minutes he must have felt like he had given the whole thing away.
Molinari and Woods surely teed off Sunday afternoon each thinking that maybe only in the wildest of scenarios that their match would have any relevance to the outcome of the matches. The American team entered Sunday with a seemingly insurmountable lead. Maybe at most Molinari was excited for another shot at Woods after the way Woods had switched to another gear two years earlier in the Ryder Cup matches in Wales and thumped him so handily after having been two-down to the Italian in the early going.
But as each match ended in front of them, with the Americans finding a way to lose, give away leads or be closed out on the 17th and 18th holes, it became more and more possible that Molinari was out there on his own with it all on the line against maybe the greatest player the game has ever known. The tension had to be building for them with each shot they took. Every step they got closer to the end of their match, the tighter the Ryder Cup had become. The nightmare scenario the Americans tried not to think about, and the Europeans dreamed for, was unfolding in front of them.
It was a potentially career-defining moment for the young Italian. Should it all come down to him beating Woods at the end to secure the cup for the Europeans, it would be the stuff of fairy tales, where legends are made. Fortunately for Molinari, the combination of great play by his European teammates and a sickening collapse by the Americans in front of them allowed him to escape the horror of what his terrible shot on the 17th green could have meant.
We would later find out that what we saw there briefly in the fairway was Captain Olazabal imploring his young player to fight to the finish. It was if the great Seve Ballesteros was there himself with Molinari’s face in his hands, the two men’s eyes only inches apart, issuing that challenge to him that a tie was not good enough. The European Captain smelled blood in the water. Surely his great friend and mentor, Ballesteros, would be smiling down on him with approval. They had to finish the fight. They had to win the cup. The Europeans had come a long way with Ballesteros on their Ryder Cup teams as a player and a captain, and later as an inspiration. They had come too far to accept a tie.
For Woods’ part, one must assume that seeing him in the first fairway with Bubba Watson just after Watson teed off, a couple of hours before his own match would begin, meant that Woods might have had some kind of feeling that his cohorts were in for a battle and he wanted to be there to rally them to engage in the fracas and not be left standing and watching their lead slip away.
We were told that Woods asked United States Captain Davis Love III if he could be in the anchor match. Unfortunately for Woods, there will be speculation as to whether that meant he wanted to be at the end “where the buck stopped” or at the end where it probably wouldn’t matter. There was a time when there could be no doubt as to what Woods’ intentions were in asking for the anchor match. There was a time when Woods was nearly untouchable. His presence used to be almost bigger than his game, and his game was immense.
It had to weigh heavily on Woods that he and Stricker had been blanked through three matches of this Ryder Cup. He had already fallen on his sword to the media earlier in the week and taken ownership of America’s past Ryder Cup failures because of his less than stellar record in the foursomes and four-ball matches over the years. The frustration he must have felt after making seven birdies on Friday afternoon, only to have been beaten by a Ryder Cup rookie who made eight birdies and an eagle, must have been boiling over with each missed birdie opportunity Sunday, on this course with almost no rough, by the time it became apparent that his match with Molinari might very well decide which team wins and which team loses the cup.
It was the exact kind of moment we, as golf fans, have been trained to believe that Woods thrives on. It is arguably the toughest, most pressure packed spot to be in that any professional golfer could ever experience. It is also the kind of moment that Tiger Woods seems to have been born for. How badly he must have wanted to be in Hunter Mahan’s shoes two years ago when Mahan found himself in that position. One could see why Love would have also wanted Tiger in the anchor spot. Tiger’s career has defined greatness. Hunter Mahan is a fabulous golfer, but he’s not Tiger Woods. So if it all came down to the last game out, Love wanted to make the Europeans have to take down Woods to win it.
The problem was that Woods couldn’t shake Molinari. This isn’t the Tiger Woods that lapped the field at Pebble Beach to win the 2000 U.S. Open. This isn’t the same Tiger Woods who has won 14 professional majors. This isn’t even the one-legged Tiger Woods who willed his way to a U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines in 2008. Tiger Woods circa 2012 hasn’t won a major in four years. Tiger Woods circa 2012 doesn’t find competitors wilting around him because of the might of his presence. Tiger Woods circa 2012 was without a point through three matches in the Ryder Cup, and burning through holes quickly in his match with Molinari without finding that spark he needed.
It had to be the kind of moment that Tiger had dreamed of many times before. It was all lining up in front of him for him to bring it home. Maybe he even noticed that it also looked like his longtime partner, “Strick”, was going to have a chance to redeem himself for his three losses by finding a way to get past Kaymer in a match of great significance. But it wasn’t happening for Woods.
He had piled birdies on top of Molinari in their Ryder Cup match so quickly two years ago, that Molinari was still digging himself out and licking his wounds. But Woods had not been able to find that magic on the back nine in this match. In this match he had seemingly finally only worn Molinari out when the Italian skulled his chip across the green and fell one hole behind. Woods knew it wasn’t pretty, he knew it wasn’t magical, and maybe somewhere in the back of his mind it hurt him that it wasn’t and that the struggle had been so mighty. And maybe that hurt him more than anything, the fact that the luster was off of his game and he was glad to be one-up, however he got there.
But as Molinari and Woods stood in the fairway and watched Kaymer put the United States down for good, all that they had been battling for, all the fierce intensity and pressure they had thrived on, fought back from, and struggled to get ahead of, disappeared when that putt went in the hole. The goat moniker eluded Molinari, though he knew in his heart he had faltered, and Woods’ shot at the next glorious chapter of his remarkable career was also gone. The suspense was over. The moment had passed.
Apparently Molinari wanted to concede to Woods in the fairway, and it was then that we saw Olazabal imploring him to fight on. Love would later say he didn’t know why they were playing on, no matter what happened between Woods and Molinari, the cup was going back to Europe. A tie apparently meant nothing to him.
The second thing the camera picked up on was a jubilant Lee Westwood returning to the mosh pit of joy and celebration, that was the core of his European teammates, to scream to them above the madness that Tiger had missed a short putt and the Europeans had won the cup 14.5 to 13.5. It was exactly what they wanted. They had not retained the cup, they had come all the way back and won it. What he said to them sent them into more roars of delight, tears of joy flowed down their faces, they had done the impossible.
Molinari may have very well made the putt that Woods conceded to him anyway, but the fact that Woods gave him a putt that meant the Europeans won the cup rather than tied for the cup, is significant to some because it assured another loss rather than whatever fleeting modicum of respect a tie would have meant four, eight, 10, or 20-years from now had Molinari missed. Some will say that Woods giving him that putt was a selfish act of frustration, and that he owed it to his teammates to fight until the last putt dropped. Some will counter that the damage had been done and that “kissing their sister” after losing that big lead is really no better. The Americans had come to win the cup; they had not come to settle for a respectable tie.
Ultimately the fact that the Europeans won the cup outright means more to them than whether or not Molinari missed the last putt of the Ryder Cup, after the fate of the cup had been decided, would mean to the Americans. The fact that he didn’t get a chance to miss it prevented the United States from whatever dignity a tie might have meant as the history of the Ryder Cup plays out in the future. What will definitely be remembered is that the Americans came into the Sunday singles matches, on their own soil, in front of some of America’s most rowdy and boisterous fans, and got soundly shellacked by a European team that played like it had nothing to lose and everything to gain.