US leads, but Ryder Cup up for grabs

MEDINAH, Ill. — With 12 singles matches left to play, the score at the 39th Ryder Cup is 10-6. Do those numbers look familiar?

They should. Invoking instant memories from the 1999 matches at The Country Club in Brookline — the last time it was 10-6 on US soil heading into Sunday — this playing of the Ryder Cup will need a similar final-day effort for the team in front to get caught. The difference is that the United States, unlike in ’99, went to bed Saturday night as the team being chased.

Just when it looked like the Americans would run away with the Ryder Cup and make the singles an irrelevant exhibition instead of a competition, the final hour of play in Saturday’s four-balls gave the Europeans much-needed hope and changed the tenor of these matches.

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Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald held off Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker — dropping them to 0-3 for the week — with a 1-up victory, secured only when Stricker missed an 8-footer for birdie and a halve.

Then Ian Poulter produced the kind of play that had only been seen from the Americans to that point. With the Europeans desperate for something — anything — resembling momentum, Poulter birdied his last five holes, his reaction growing more animated with each dropping putt. All were necessary, because he and Rory McIlroy were trailing Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson throughout the afternoon, and by two holes with six to play. Then the Euros birdied to the house, McIlroy starting things off with an 18-foot putt on the par-3 13th to cut the US lead to one.

That’s when Poulter took over. His birdie at No. 15 squared the match, his birdie at the 16th put him and McIlroy in front for the first time, and his birdies on Nos. 17-18 guaranteed they stayed there, with Johnson (17th) and Dufner (18th) rolling in birdie putts of their own in a late bid to tie.

A Ryder Cup that until then had lots of US victories and plenty of songs, chants, and cheering was lacking only one thing: Drama. Poulter delivered it, and set the stage for what could be a very interesting and possibly historic Sunday.

“We needed to get something going,” Poulter said. “We had to make birdies, and, wow, I mean, five in a row? It was awesome.

“I’m tough to play against in match play, that’s important. Guys want to beat me, that’s fine. I want to beat them just as bad as they want to beat me, and I’m not going to roll over. I’m going to go down blazing.”

The US team likes its position, however. Its road to a 10-6 lead started well before Ryder Cup week, once the team began to materialize and players knew they’d be playing against Europe in late September at Medinah Country Club.

Captain Davis Love has always preached ownership, saying it wasn’t his team, it was the 12 players who would be representing their country and relying on teammates, especially over the first two days. So he asked them to give input on who they wanted to play with and which pairings would make good partnerships, especially once his four captain’s picks were announced and the team was finalized.

Very quickly, twosomes began to make sense. Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley play practice-round money matches at almost every tournament. Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson won three of four matches together at last year’s Presidents Cup. Dufner and Johnson, paired often in the last few months of PGA Tour events — they also dueled at the Colonial in May — started seeing things from the other’s game that appealed to them.

Those three teams played nine matches at the 39th Ryder Cup, and won seven. There haven’t been many stumbles by the US this week — the biggest being Woods and Stricker — but those six players helped create the big lead.

“These guys came in really prepared. They came in playing very well,” Love said. “They went out with guys they like to play with, and they are having fun.

“I think that was really the key, that they bought into if they just went out and played their game with their friends, they were going to have fun and play well. And except for Saturday morning for about nine holes, they have done that all day the last two days.”

After a second straight session that saw the Americans win three out of four matches, then another in which they split four, the 10-6 score is the largest two-day lead by a US Ryder Cup team since 1975. They’ll need 4½ points out of 12 on Sunday to win back the Ryder Cup, while Europe must earn 8 if it wants to retain it.

What had been up-for-grabs at 5-3 is now a 4-point lead. But you can bet both captains were reminding their teams what can happen with that kind of margin and only one day left. Love played for the United States in ’99; European captain Jose Maria Olazabal also played, and halved his singles match with Justin Leonard that gave the US the point total it needed to win.

Before running into Poulter’s dizzying closing kick, Dufner and Johnson cooled off Nicolas Colsaerts (eight birdies and an eagle Friday) and Garcia in a 2 and 1 victory in alternate-shot play.

“We think the same, our mentalities are the same, I would say our games are very similar,” Johnson said. “The only thing that was different today is that Duf carried me.”

Simpson carried Watson, especially in the afternoon, when he made seven birdies in a 5-and-4 win over Justin Rose and Francesco Molinari. That followed a 1-up loss by the pair to Rose and Poulter, so payback was nice.

“He just got in a rhythm this afternoon and made the putts,” Watson said of his partner. “We wanted to go back out there and redeem ourselves.”

Both teams might be feeling that way come Sunday morning. The Europeans will look to fully ignite the spark started by Poulter. The Americans will focus on the entire two first days that put them in this position, not just the final hour.

“We’re not disappointed,” Love said. “We lipped out a bunch of putts, and we hung in there. We haven’t lost a segment yet. We’re just going to try tomorrow and try to keep that string going.”

Garcia was a 19-year-old playing in his first Ryder Cup at those ’99 matches, and still remembers the feeling of being close to a team win, only to see the other team swipe it at the end. He’d like to return the favor.

“I hope that we can make them feel something similar. Hopefully we’ll get off to a good start and see how they react,” Garcia said. “It would be nice to kind of give it back the way they did it to us in ’99.”