The German commentary of Martin Kaymer’s birdie putt on the 18th at Medinah – the one that goes six feet past – is wonderfully understated. “Ayeee.” Not whispered. Not yelled. Just spoken, encapsulating how so many of us felt as that ball kept on rolling. And then silence. And then the agonising wait for Steve Stricker to line up his par putt, line it up again and knock it in the hole.
Had this entire comeback been for nothing? And why do I still get butterflies as Kaymer then stands over the ball for a par putt to retain the Ryder Cup? The camera cuts to Sergio García and Graeme McDowell trying to not let the panic show. The captain, José María Olazábal, is halfway down the fairway on the verge of tears.
Kaymer doesn’t rattle it. The putt is slow enough for him to be resting the club against his thigh with his hands aloft before it drops. And Europe have done it.
This was 2012. Europe 10-4 down on the Saturday with two matches out on the course. Ian Poulter holing a putt and yelling like a man possessed – with the eyes of that Arsenal fan at Old Trafford, burning through people, arms shaking. Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson on the 17th. Mickelson’s delightful chip inching past, Rose holing a putt from further away. Uncharacteristic steel in his eyes, arms clenched. Big Phil has to applaud.
“You have a far greater chance of going into space or climbing Everest than you have representing Europe in the Ryder Cup”, explained Lee Westwood in the buildup to this weekend’s tournament at Whistling Straits, one which will see Bernd Wiesberger become the 164th man to represent the continent. Europe’s skipper, Pádraig Harrington, was keen to point out that 570 people have been into space. It’s interesting to think that you are three and a half times more likely to be floating around the cosmos than to be in the frame for playing in the fourballs with Jon Rahm on Friday afternoon.
It doesn’t feel like an either/or situation. What’ll it be sir? Ryder Cup or space? Chances are Elon Musk is considering taking the seniors tour up there as we speak. Just imagine how far it’ll go off the tee with zero gravity. Fuzzy Zoeller hitting a three wood five and a half miles straight into the green-side crater.
For the time being the Ryder Cup remains on earth, and for my money – the single greatest sporting event going. It’s clearly a matter of opinion Clive, not a debate where everyone disagrees at the start and disagrees at the end. But there is something about it that moves me to the point that I well up at any glorious European moment – Jamie Donaldson’s approach on the 15th at Gleneagles in 2014. “One hundred and forty-six yards left down the hill … BE GOOD” – biting his top lip, finger pointed skywards. “Absolutely wonderful. Well done Jamie, and now at last we can celebrate”.
Fair-weather golf fans probably don’t deserve the joy of this competition. I don’t know when the European Tour starts, I catch the majors if I happen to be at home. Of all the golf courses in all the world I could only confidently describe the 17th at Sawgrass. But by Sunday I will have an encyclopaedic knowledge of every hole at Whistling Straits. When there are 12 singles matches on the course my brain will have rewired itself to a golfing version of the Minority Report. I’ll know Paul Casey’s lie on the 5th and Shane Lowry’s club selection on the 12th.
Much has already been made of the boorish US fans – and there is a line, but I watch from the comfort of my sofa with such bias, that it would be a grave hypocrisy to criticise too much. The European team are 12 individuals, 12 superheroes – each with their own origin story worthy of a two-and-a-half hour Marvel epic. Standing in their way are 12 identikit Americans. They are the baddies, mere henchmen. Or 11 henchmen and the end of level boss Bryson DeChambeau – twice the size of the others. Do they even have speaking roles? When they pump fists and bump chests it is vulgar and unbecoming of the sport. When Europeans do it, it is for good – it is romantic, virtuous, part of something bigger. If Viktor Hovland and Matt Fitzpatrick can combine to defeat the unscrupulous law firm Schauffele and Scheffler, then maybe a fractured continent can be reunited. This is what it means to be European.
This all may not engender such emotion for some, but for the players it undoubtedly does. The chance to be part of a team. This is the only time where they are genuinely supported – en masse, with passion, with singing and chanting. And just about the only time they are booed and heckled. That camaraderie rarely exists in individual sports. You might prefer one golfer or athlete to another. But you can’t buy a season ticket to Scott Verplank. You can’t go home and away to Adam Peaty. But to be greater than the sum of their parts for one long weekend. For that five-foot putt to mean something to someone else – not just you. That matters.
And while they might ultimately all be stateless millionaires living out of suitcases – swinging metal sticks for our entertainment – the bond between them feels real. Ollie and Seve, Clarke and Westwood, Fleetwood and Molinari.
On Monday, we can pack golf away for a couple of years, but for this weekend it is all that matters. And on Sunday night, let’s hope Europe take inspiration from the brilliant Solheim Cup win a few weeks ago and Ian Woosnam is on a balcony somewhere downing a pint of Guinness to celebrate.