Europeans (barely) live to play again

MEDINAH, Ill. -- Well, that was fun.

Fun in the sense that as darkness fell early Saturday, European hopes brightened ever so slightly. A gloomy day turned at least somewhat positive. A level of hope was restored.

The last two groups of Saturday's action at Medinah Country Club provided plenty of drama, the event's essence on display. The grandstands were packed and U.S. fans could smell blood. And then, all of a sudden, it was the smattering of European backers who were giddy.

They were small victories, but victories nonetheless, capped by England's Ian Poulter birdieing the last five holes to end the day, giving the Europeans a much-needed 1-up victory over Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson.

Poulter celebrated as if he had just holed a putt to win a major, when all he did was give Europe a chance heading into Sunday's singles.

"I just love the Ryder Cup,'' said Poulter, who is 3-0 in this year's event, the only winning record on the European side. "You just try to get your hands back on the trophy. We have kind of recovered a little bit today. Again it was not looking good.

"We halved this session and we need to go out there really strong tomorrow and try to get our hands on this trophy.''

Poulter has been the guts of the European team, and when he drained the 15-foot birdie putt, he turned and looked right at the American players waiting on the green, stunned. It was a moment possible only at the Ryder Cup, but the fact remains Europe has a big deficit to overcome.

And that's why those last two matches were so important. Anything less than a victory by either the team of Sergio Garcia-Luke Donald or Poulter and Rory McIlroy would have turned the final day of the 39th Ryder Cup into a Sunday coronation for the United States.

As it is, the task is nearly impossible for the Europeans, who trail 10-6. Only one time in Ryder Cup history has a team come back from such a deficit -- the highly contentious rally by the Americans at Brookline in 1999.

That required the U.S. to win 8½ of 12 points -- and that's exactly what the Americans did.

The Europeans, since they possess the Cup because of their 2010 victory, need "only'' a 14-14 tie to retain it, or 8 out of 12 points.

"I'm not sure what it was in Brookline, and we all know what an epic day that was for the Americans,'' said Justin Rose, who won with Poulter as his partner Saturday morning. "Massive task tomorrow, but there's a chance.''

There is no doubting the passion, the purpose. The Ryder Cup traditionally brings out the best in European golfers, who typically summon every last bit of their inner being to beat the Americans.

We've seen it over and over again, through years of incredible triumphs on golf's grandest stages. Even in years when the Europeans were inferior in talent -- and you can cite several examples -- they often prevailed.

"We just live for this,'' Sergio Garcia once said. "We can't wait to play in this event. You try even harder. You believe in yourself even more than in other tournaments.''

Garcia said that during the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills in Michigan, where the Americans suffered their worst beating in Ryder Cup history, 18½ to 9½. Just to show it was no fluke, the Americans lost by the same score two years later in Ireland.

During those dark days of Ryder Cup hardship, all manner of theories were offered up as to why the U.S. was so lousy. Americans were criticized for not caring enough, for not bonding with their teammates, for not practicing the various formats ... for just about everything.

But in the end, it's really about playing well -- especially among your top players. During many of those defeats, especially the record-setting losses, the U.S. team did not play well.

And it's as simple as that this year for the Europeans at Medinah Country Club, where despite the intriguing finish Saturday, the Europeans have an all-star cast of players getting their collective noses rubbed in the Illinois dirt.

Where is all that heart and passion and resolve and all the other words to describe European brilliance in victory? All of that sounds good when you're winning, but does that mean it's gone missing when you're losing?

Not necessarily. In fact, probably not.

Certainly not if you saw some of the shots hit by Garcia and Donald, the team the Europeans needed to hold on to any kind of hope for Sunday, coming down the stretch on Saturday afternoon. They managed to hold off Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, who combined to make six birdies on the back nine, including five by Woods.

And certainly not if you watched the lossless Poulter; you have to wonder why he sat on Friday afternoon.

If Lee Westwood is having a horrible Ryder Cup -- which he is -- is it because he lacks heart? Hardly. He's simply having a bad week, and it happens, even to the Europeans.

Some players showed up at Medinah with the best of intentions, if not their best games.

Donald came to Medinah undefeated in foursomes play in his Ryder Cup career and has suffered two losses in that format, including a 7 and 6 drubbing with Westwood to Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley.

Rory McIlroy, coming off such a solid summer of top-level golf, has appeared spent at Medinah, especially Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, although he heads to Sunday 2-2 after combining with Poulter to win the last match Saturday.

The hero of the 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales, Graeme McDowell, unable to get a putt to drop, was benched Saturday afternoon.

"This golf course, it's about momentum,'' McDowell said. "If you're seeing it on the greens, you can really get going with the putter and if you're not ... But Rory and I certainly struggled this morning on the greens again.

"We are in a hole. These guys, there's blood in the water and they are up for it.''

Reverse the roles and the refrain was a familiar one over the years from the American side. During those lopsided defeats in 2004 and 2006, the U.S. had Woods, Mickelson and Jim Furyk residing in the top five in the world.

During the 2004 match, Woods, Mickelson, Furyk and Davis Love III -- now the U.S. captain -- were the top four players on the team. They combined to go 5-12-1 that year. You're not going to win when your top players don't perform.

This year, aside from Woods, the Americans have gotten production from their top players: Mickelson is 3-0 along with Bradley, a rookie. Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson are each 2-1, as are Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner. Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar are 2-0. Everybody has earned a point for the U.S. except Woods and Stricker, who have been on the losing end in three of the six defeats.

"Well, you can see the difference mainly around the greens,'' said European captain Jose Maria Olazabal. "Our boys are not making the putts. And it's true that some of them haven't performed to their expectations.''

The task Sunday becomes even tougher when you consider that Martin Kaymer and Peter Hanson did not play all day. In their only appearances on Friday, they lost. Francesco Molinari and Paul Lawrie are 0-2. If none of those players is able to get at least a half point, the remaining eight would need to all win their matches.

The odds are enormous. But the Europeans have shown time and again how much the Ryder Cup means to them. If they lose, it won't be for lack of trying.
Garcia remembers being on the other end in '99, when he was just 19 years old.

"I hope that we can make them feel something similar,'' he said. "Hopefully we'll get off to a good start and see how they react, and then we'll see what happens from there. It would be nice to kind of give it back the way they did it to us in '99.''