MEDINAH, Ill. — Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley helped stake the Americans to their biggest lead in the Ryder Cup in more than 30 years. Ian Poulter, eyes bulging and fists shaking with every clutch putt, at least gave Europe some big momentum over the final frantic hour Saturday at Medinah.
Right when it looked as if the Americans were a lock to win back the cup, Poulter birdied his last five holes to win a crucial point and keep everyone guessing. Steady chants of “USA! USA!” gave way to snappy serenades of “Ole, Ole” as both sides trudged to the team rooms in darkness to prepare for 12 singles matches today (noon, WCBD-TV/NBC).
The Americans still had a big lead, 10-6. Europe at least had hope.
“The last two putts were massive,” European captain Jose Maria Olazabal said after watching Poulter stay undefeated in this Ryder Cup by rolling in one last birdie putt from 12 feet. “That gives us a chance. It’s been done before in the past. Tomorrow is a big day.”
Only one team has ever rallied from four points behind on the final day — the United States in that famous comeback at Brookline in 1999. Olazabal remembers it well. He was in the decisive match when Justin Leonard rolled in a 45-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole.
Is the Spaniard a big believer in fate?
“I believe momentum will come our way,” Olazabal said. “Why not tomorrow?”
Olazabal borrowed a page from that American team at Brookline by loading the top of his singles lineup with his best players. Luke Donald leads off against Bubba Watson, followed by Poulter against Webb Simpson, Rory McIlroy against Bradley and Justin Rose against Mickelson.
U.S. captain Davis Love III put Tiger Woods — winless in the Ryder Cup for the first time going into today — in the anchor position against Francesco Molinari, whom Woods beat in Wales last time.
The final two matches Saturday were a showcase of what the Ryder Cup is all about — one brilliant shot after another, birdies on every hole, suspense at every turn.
Donald and Sergio Garcia were on the verge of blowing a 4-up lead to hard-charging Woods and Steve Stricker, hanging on when Donald matched two birdies with Woods, including a tee shot into the 17th that plopped down 2 feet from the cup.
Woods and Stricker lost all three of their matches, even though Woods made five birdies on the back nine for the second straight day.
Woods was thinking more of the big picture.
“Being up four is nice,” he said. “We are in a great spot right now to win the cup.”
Poulter and McIlroy were 2 down with six holes to play against Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson when McIlroy made a 15-foot birdie putt on the 13th, and Poulter took it from there.
“We had to make birdies, and wow! Five in a row. It was awesome,” Poulter said. “I’ve got the world No. 1 at my side, backing me up. It allowed me to hit some golf shots.”
The crowd was still buzzing as it filed out of Medinah, and Poulter grinned.
“It’s pretty fun, this Ryder Cup,” said Poulter, who raised his career record to 11-3-0.
It’s been plenty fun for the Americans, who for the first time have not lost any of the four sessions since the Ryder Cup switched to the current format in 1979. Mickelson and Bradley were flawless in foursomes, matching a Ryder Cup record for largest margin with a 7-and-6 win over Donald and Lee Westwood.
Mickelson and Bradley have been so dominant that they have yet to play the 18th hole in any of their three matches. They didn’t play in the afternoon, part of the master plan by U.S. captain Davis Love III to make sure his players were fresh for Sunday. Love became the first U.S. captain since 1979 to make sure each of his players sat out at least one match before the final day.
“We’re not disappointed,” Love said of the late rally by Europe. “We haven’t lost a segment yet, and we’re just going to try to keep that string going.”
Despite the last two matches that swung momentum away from them, the Americans only have to look at their 10-6 lead — their largest since it was 10½-5½ in 1981 — to realize how close they are to winning back that 17-inch gold trophy.
They only need 14½ points to win. That translates to four wins and a halve in the 12 singles matches, traditionally an American strength.
And they have built this lead without getting a single point from Woods, who has lost his last five matches with Stricker in two Ryder Cups and a Presidents Cup.
“I’ve played well the last two afternoons and didn’t get a point,” Woods said. “It’s tough. Yesterday I made a bunch of birdies and today I made five on the back nine and it just wasn’t enough.”
His team has carried him along, though.
Watson and Simpson rolled to a 5-and-4 win in the afternoon, while Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar won for the second straight time in fourballs in a tight match. It was tied going to the par-3 17th, a daunting shot from an elevated tee to a narrow green guarded by water. Johnson hit 8-iron to 20 feet and poured in the birdie putt, setting off the loudest cheer of a raucous week outside Chicago. They halved the 18th for a 1-up win.
“Probably the loudest roar I’ve ever heard,” Johnson said. “In that situation, probably one of the best putts I’ve ever made.”
The Americans had a 5-3 lead to start the day, and it was critical for the Europeans to make inroads. Instead, they saw more American red on the scoreboards and heard endless cheers erupt from all corners of Medinah.
Leading the way was Bradley, the rock star of this Ryder Cup who was so fired up that he came out to the first tee well before his match to ask for noise. In alternate shot, the most difficult format, Bradley and Mickelson had six birdies in 10 holes, and their 7-and-6 win tied the Ryder Cup record last matched in 1991.
Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker atoned for a Friday loss by beating McIlroy and Graeme McDowell in 18 holes, and the Americans took an 8-4 lead to the afternoon. All the momentum was on their side. The crowd felt it, and so did the players from both teams.
“It was hard — very hard — to ignore the red on the board,” McDowell said. “It’s hard to ignore the noise that’s been made around the golf course. There’s blood in the water. They’re up for it.”
That’s what made those last two matches so critical.
Woods did not play Saturday morning, the first time he’s ever been at the Ryder Cup in uniform without a tee time, and he didn’t contribute much in falling so far behind. But he turned it around on the back nine, pointing to the cup when a birdie putt fell, screaming orders at his tee shot as the ball was in the air, looking like he was on the verge of a big comeback. Donald and Garcia, who had yet to win a point, made sure that didn’t happen.
“That was big,” Donald said. “Having these matches turn our way has really given the European side a lift that we needed. It’s given us a heartbeat for tomorrow.”
Poulter and McIlroy came up big in so many ways. The Americans had won every match at Medinah when leading on the back nine until the final match. McIlroy made his sliding birdie putt from 15 feet on the 13th hole, and Poulter did the rest.
“Poults gets that look in his eye — especially the week of the Ryder Cup — and it’s really impressive,” McIlroy said.
The Europeans now hope to repeat the American comeback in 1999. The Americans had Ben Crenshaw, wagging his finger and saying, “I’m a big believer in fate.” The Europeans have Olazabal, a proud Spaniard and teammate of the late Seve Ballesteros. This is the first Ryder Cup since his death from a brain tumor in May 2011, and the Europeans will dress in navy blue, the color Ballesteros favored on Sunday. Their uniforms will bear his iconic silhouette.
“It’s always possible,” Paul Lawrie said. “Until it’s impossible to do it, then you fight on, certainly for José María this week. No one is going to be giving up.”