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Sunday PUNCH
Steve Rushin
October 07, 2002
With the mighty U.S. team saving its heavy hitters until it was too late, the Europeans came out swinging and landed a match-play haymaker to win the Ryder Cup
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October 07, 2002

Sunday Punch

With the mighty U.S. team saving its heavy hitters until it was too late, the Europeans came out swinging and landed a match-play haymaker to win the Ryder Cup

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When it was over, and Europeans were diving into a pond near the 18th green—one by one, rapid-fire, as at the start of an Esther Williams number—the U.S. had surrendered the Ryder Cup with two bullets still in their chambers. Thirty-five thousand spectators were going bats in the Belfry, while Davis Love III and Tiger Woods had yet to post scores. U.S. captain Curtis Strange may forever feel the weight of those unfinished rounds, like the phantom legs of an amputee.

The pity is not that the U.S. died, but that it died with green bananas on the counter. Love was the 10th American to tee off on Sunday, too late to help his teammates. Woods—who's been known to get $2 million and the use of a Maserati simply for showing up at a tournament in Europe—went off 12th and last. You wouldn't bat DiMaggio 10th, or have Yo-Yo Ma play third-chair cello. But the world's best golfer was marooned, midround, on the 17th hole when Europe won the 34th Ryder Cup in Sutton Coldfield, England. Said Woods, cruelly, of what he did next: "I hit one of my best seven-irons ever." Sigh. But then Schubert, too, left an unfinished symphony.

The week began with a rare English earthquake: 4.2 on the Richter scale, it sent Jesper Parnevik fleeing naked into the night onto the balcony of the Belfry Hotel. The week ended with one, too. As Paul McGinley of Ireland—a genial man with the stature, and perma-smile, of a ventriloquist's dummy—stood over a 10-foot par putt on 18 on Sunday, he needed only to sink it to halve his match with Jim Furyk and give Europe 14� points and victory. The gallery stood a dozen deep around the green, thousands of people pogoing up and down in an effort to see, so that the golf course looked like one prodigious Whack-a-Mole game.

When the putt fell, the gallery immediately burst into song. "I realized then," said Woods, who was standing on the 17th tee, "that we weren't going to win." No indeed, for McGinley was immediately dwarf-tossed into the pond, and Europe captain Sam Torrance exhaled joyous walrus tusks of cigarette smoke through his nostrils. "Hurry up with your questions," the Scotsman urged reporters much later that evening in an interview tent, long after his team's 15�-12� win, as the postvictory singing outside entered its third consecutive hour without pause. "It sounds like a hell of a party out there."

It was. All week spectators were "biased and respectful in the same breath," as David Duval put it. For this was, as all the signage served to remind everyone, the 2001 RYDER CUP, postponed a year because of Sept. 11. After the debacle outside Boston in '99—when celebrating U.S. players and wives, wearing hideous shirts of woven vomit, were accused of epitomizing ugly Americanism—spectators were urged to behave at the Belfry. They bought into the program, Brookline and sinker.

It helped that security was tighter than an Englishman's arteries. Among the items specifically proscribed at the Belfry were folding chairs and stepladders, in evident anticipation of an attack by Ric Flair. Police with submachine guns patrolled the course's perimeter, and alcohol was barred from the galleries. "Didn't see one drunk," Torrance said after Friday's better-ball and alternate-shot play, during which his side, keyed by two victories from the team of Sergio Garc�a and the reborn Lee Westwood, eked out a 4�-3� lead. "Might see a couple later though. And I might be one of 'em."

Sure enough, by sundown Sunday, Torrance—a joyous man whose mustache appears to have been Magic Markered on—was chugging from an oversized bottle of Mo�t, the kind used to launch ships. Which, in a manner of speaking, he had just done. Torrance raised the sunken Phillip Price, the last man to qualify for team Europe. "I've been in the depths," Price said on Sunday night, "and this team has pulled me up."

The 35-year-old Welshman's paragraph-long bio in the European Tour guide is so slight that it actually has room for the notation "Pontypridd Man of the Year, 1994," an honor bestowed by his hometown. Yet on Sunday, Phil Mickelson (World Ranking: 2) was torpedoed by Price (World Ranking: 119) in match play, 3 and 2. "I didn't think I had it in me," said Price, "but it was nice to find out that I did."

Mickelson, for his part, is known in Europe as the Nearly Man for his frequent close calls in majors, and Sunday's round may cryonically preserve that reputation for eternity. ( Mickelson had acquitted himself valiantly in the better-ball and alternate-shot competitions on Friday and Saturday, teaming up with David Toms to go 2-1-1.) Of course, Scotland has its own Very Nearly Man in Colin Montgomerie, who also has famously wilted in majors and is now—to hear him tell it—literally wilting, a chiropractic catastrophe. But Monty played unbowed and unbeaten at the Belfry, winning three of his better-ball and alternate-shot matches, halving another and whipping Scott Hoch in Sunday's match-play opener, 5 and 4. "Bad heart, bad back, and tomorrow he'll have a bad head," said Torrance, watching Monty giddily swig Budweiser on Sunday night.

Montgomery led off singles play, which began with the teams tied at eight points apiece, only because Torrance front-loaded his 12-man lineup, putting his best golfers first in an effort to create momentum. Strange, to the contrary, back-loaded his list, placing his best golfers—Love, Mickelson and Woods—last. "Any superstar," explained Strange, "wants to take the last shot." But what if Jordan never got to touch the ball?

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