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Andy Lyons/Getty Images Ian Poulter

Poulter’s Cup

The European miracle at Medinah

If England’s Ian Poulter had teed off on the second hole at Medinah in an ordinary PGA event, you could expect the gallery to shout the usual clichés. You know the ones: “You da man!” “In the hole!” Standard fare. But Ian Poulter was not teeing off at an ordinary PGA event; he was teeing off at the Ryder Cup, and as his iron shot sailed over Lake Kadijah on Saturday afternoon, a lone, sarcastic voice rang out.

“Way to go, fancy pants!”

A smattering of laughter greeted the jeer, and it grew into unrestrained glee when the shot came up short. After Poulter crossed the narrow bridge and missed a putt to give the Americans an early two-up lead, the fans serenaded him with mocking cheers and cries of “nice putt!”

It was strange, all the taunting, especially in a sport like golf, where etiquette is so important. But the intensity of the Ryder Cup, and the Europe vs. America format, obliterates the subtle niceties of the game. It’s fun, but fun with an edge. Fans don’t just dress up in goofy outfits; they wear colonial British army uniforms, or American hats that say “Back-to-Back World War Champs.” Both captains, Davis Love III for the U.S. and Jose Maria Olazabal for Europe, enjoined the crowds to be loud and partisan, but to remain respectful. But with such large contingents — including the British, who imported their confrontational soccer culture and brought the best (worst?) out of the Americans — they must have known it was a futile request.

And Ian Poulter, as it turns out, is the man the American fans love to hate the most. The “fancy pants” insult was one of the tamest he would face all day, and he didn’t exactly help his cause. The afternoon wardrobe for the Europeans included tops in a deep fuchsia color. Among his teammates, Poulter was the only golfer to opt for a pair of matching shoes, and this made him an easy target.

“Ian, my wife has those same shoes,” a man on the third hole shouted. “She looks great in them!”

And again, on no. 8: “Nice shoes, Ian. Do they make them in men’s?”

His playing partner, Rory McIlroy, wasn’t spared, either. Spectators pointed out that the youthful McIlroy looked like a 10-year-old boy, and they made ominous-sounding remarks like, “You’re going to have a long walk today, Rory.” One fan even pushed to the front of the ropes in the walkway between holes to shout my favorite heckle of the day: “Rory! We’re the raucous American crowd!”

But these insults were delivered with something like affection. McIlroy has the cuddly look of a younger brother who can be teased and pushed around without causing any real damage; in the end, he knows he’s loved, and people stop short of true cruelty. But Poulter? With Poulter, fans broke out the vitriol. They booed him when he wouldn’t concede putts. They unleashed sarcastic “ahhhhs!” when his putts came up short. And on some basic level, they seemed to actually despise him.

But why? Maybe it’s his style, Euro-chic and slim, topped off with a faux-hawk. He looks like the kind of person who would sneer at you in a trendy Chelsea nightclub where you most definitely don’t belong. Maybe it’s his energy, expressed in angry roars and bugged eyes and clenched fists. Maybe it’s the fact that in contrast to the genteel manners of many golfers, he never tries to disguise the very personal conflict at the heart of match play. Or maybe — probably — it’s the fact that at 12–3, he’s now the greatest Ryder Cup player of his generation.

So the Chicago golf fans drank their beers, cleared their throats, and tried to bring misery into his life. Following him around Saturday, I kept thinking of a lyric from “Behind Blue Eyes”: “No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man.” It seemed like a tough gig, and even tougher because Poulter and his team were losing badly. One of the chief pleasures of covering the Ryder Cup is a tiny on-course radio given to journalists, which carries the BBC Radio commentary. With the Europeans trailing 8–4 after three sessions, the Brits put it best: “These little white balls are thoroughly disobedient for the Europeans … their gooses, if not cooked, are simmering nicely.”

So Poulter absorbed the insults and carried on. And none of the abusive masses, lining the fairways and surrounding the greens, knew that he was about to break their hearts.

Up until that Saturday session, American captain Davis Love III had done everything right. That’s an important fact to remember, because in the collapse that followed, there will be enormous amounts of second-guessing and blame landing on his shoulders, some of it self-directed. But he was almost perfect, and knowing that captains have more influence over the first two days, when teams play in pairs and matchups and chemistry influence point totals, I choose to judge his legacy based on the 10–6 score Saturday night. He came in with a plan, and the plan worked.

Love followed the lead of Paul Azinger, who captained the 2008 American team to a blowout victory at Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky. He worked with the Medinah grounds crew (the host captain gets to decide certain details of the course) to make sure the pin placements were easy, the tees were up, and the rough was virtually nonexistent. His team, mostly longer than the Europeans off the tee, was free to grip and rip it, knowing that if the ball left the fairway there would be almost no punishment.

He also made his pairings based on personal chemistry rather than chasing some notion of which playing styles might blend or succumbing to the “Dream Team”–type thinking that saw the Tiger Woods–Phil Mickelson partnership fail in 2004. “Let the friends play together,” was his refrain. It might seem obvious, but recent history has shown that when two people want to be playing together, they have a better chance of winning. Azinger and Love in particular have had unprecedented success by asking the players for their input and forming the partnerships well ahead of the Cup. Love also made sure that every player went out at least twice in the first four sessions, and had the courage to sit Tiger for the first time in his long Ryder Cup career.

Olazabal, on the other hand, mixed and matched his players and seemed to be making it up as he went along. He rested Poulter on Friday even though Poulter was his best player. He threw away a match on Saturday morning by refusing to sit Lee Westwood, who was having a horrible weekend. He upset Peter Hanson by asking him to sit out all day Saturday, and Hanson sounded heartbroken in a BBC interview before going out and losing Sunday. His partnerships generally had no rhyme or reason beyond a few pairings who’d had success in previous Cups. And while it’s true that the results come down to the players, Love’s organized system, which he had to fight with his vice-captains to institute (“Just give me a day,” he told them, hoping that day would prove his point), paid dividends. For two days, he outmanaged Olazabal.

And then Sunday came, and he lost.

As it turns out, the perception of Poulter as a prissy prima donna misses the mark. He’s working-class all the way, right down to his speech pattern. (For example, he says “me teammates” instead of “my teammates,” and “we was down four” instead of “we were down four.”) In interviews, Poulter is simple and direct. I was hoping for some eloquence about his internal process during Ryder Cups, and how he elevates his game to such a high level for these competitions. But all he’ll say is that he “loves it.” When asked to articulate why he thinks the Americans give him such a hard time, he shrugs. “That’s fine by me. I’ve had a bull’s-eye on my back for a while … I want to beat them as bad as they want to beat me, and I’m not going to roll over. I’m going to go out blazing, it’s dead simple.” And what about the appeal of the Ryder Cup? “I surprise myself. You get to stare your opponent straight in the face, and sometimes that’s what you need to do.”

Poulter is an excellent teammate who forgives himself and others easily. Justin Rose told reporters that their partnership is so effective because they know they don’t have to apologize after a mistake. And Poulter never blames his environment; on the 16th fairway Sunday, in a match that was all square and could decide the Ryder Cup, a roar from an adjacent hole erupted just as Poulter was hitting an iron. Distracted, he chunked the ball 40 yards short of the hole. But Poulter didn’t get angry; he laughed at his bad luck. Then he stepped up, hit an excellent pitch, halved the hole on an up-and-down, and went on to win on 18.

There’s something cagey and wise behind his tough style. The best example came in his Saturday-morning match against Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson. Watson was responsible for one of the most rousing moments of the Ryder Cup when he encouraged fans to cheer loudly during his first tee shot. It’s totally out of character for golf, but it was electric. So when Poulter stepped up to the tee Saturday morning, he stole Watson’s thunder. He waved the crowd into a frenzy and sent his tee shot veering off the fairway. It was a bizarre, genius move, a sacrifice of a good tee shot in order to sap some of his opponent’s energy. Eighteen holes later, he won. And what did he have to say about this subtle tactical maneuver?

“I had to get in there first. He was gonna do it to us, so I done it back to him.”

Ryder Cup

Love’s mistake came Saturday afternoon, and it came because he wouldn’t deviate from his plan. The plan had delivered him an 8-4 lead after three sessions, and the plan called for every player to sit out at least once before the singles session on Sunday. Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley had gone 3-0 as partners in the first three sessions, dominating every match. Bradley, the 26-year-old firebrand who won the PGA Championship in 2011, has an excitable nature that the crowd absolutely loved. His infectious energy had the greatest effect on Mickelson, who looked like he was having the time of his life. They dominated Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia in foursomes (alternate-shot) on Friday morning, handing both Europeans their first-ever foursome match loss — Sergio was 8-0-1, Donald was 6-0, and the two were 4-0 together. They followed that up by beating McIlroy, the no. 1 player in the world, and Graeme McDowell, the man who clinched the 2010 Ryder Cup win for Europe. On Saturday morning, they needed just 12 holes to decimate Donald and Lee Westwood.

As they rolled, the American audience became familiar with Bradley’s eccentric style. He has a habit of stopping and starting as he approaches the ball for each shot, as though he can’t decide whether he should hit it at all. He wrenches his head to the side when he reads the green, staring at the ball with his left eye and looking like an evil Quasimodo. He once apologized, on Twitter, for his compulsive spitting, despite the fact that he didn’t realize he was doing it.

But everything Bradley did this weekend endeared him to the crowd, and his exuberance carried Mickelson and him to three wins. It’s rare in golf to see players who can carry that level of energy without losing something, and it plays very, very well in the Ryder Cup. Yet on the 10th hole Saturday morning, in the midst of a rout, Mickelson told Love he should stick to his plan, and that they were ready for a rest. Love discussed it with his vice-captains, and the group decided to sit both players out in the afternoon session. That one decision would color the entire Cup.

In the press conferences, Mickelson, Bradley, and Love all said some version of the same thing — We don’t want to sacrifice two singles points for one pairs point. In other words, if we play and win this afternoon but lose both singles matches because we’re tired, it won’t be worthwhile.

And they were very, very wrong. First, the two had played just 43 holes in the three wins, meaning a fourth match would have likely put them just above 54 holes, or three full rounds. Second, Mickelson and Bradley were as close as you can get to a bird in hand as a pair, and to hold them back for some imagined result in singles seemed incredibly shortsighted. As fate would have it, both ended up losing their singles matches, so Love essentially sacrificed a point for nothing. Third, holding them back meant playing Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker; the former a miserable teammate and the latter America’s worst player all weekend. They lost. And Davis Love lost, in a way, because he wouldn’t overrule Mickelson and put his best team back on the course.

And yet, after three matches Saturday afternoon, it didn’t seem to matter. Luke Donald’s brilliant tee shot on 17 quieted a string of great golf from Woods, and when Stricker lipped a seven-foot putt on 18, the match score was 10–5. One more point — hell, even one more half-point — would “Brookline-proof” the Americans. In 1999, the U.S. famously overcame a 10–6 deficit to beat the Europeans in Brookline, Massachusetts. It was the biggest comeback in Ryder Cup history, and it matched the largest singles margin ever: 8.5–3.5. Unlike the ’99 Americans, the Europeans would have to do it on foreign soil, where nobody had ever come back from that kind of deficit. Just a half-point more …

But Ian Poulter was still on the course, and that’s when he won the Ryder Cup.

He and McIlroy trailed Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson from hole one, but a long birdie putt from Poulter on 14 and an up-and-down from the bunker on 15 squared it up. By this time, the sun had begun to set, and shadows fell halfway up the oak trees dotting the hilly course. Hopeful American fans suffered another blow when Poulter put his iron to within 15 feet on 16 and drilled the putt. Three birdies in a row, and suddenly the Europeans had a one-hole lead.

“What’s that we say?” the BBC commentator crackled in my ear. “Cometh the hour, cometh Ian Poulter.”

On 17, where crowds packed the amphitheater from grandstand to grass to bridge, Poulter put his iron to within 10 feet. When his putt went down, Poulter pumped both fists and roared at the grandstand as the muted European cheer cascaded down in reply. At this point, no man in Illinois could have been less loved. He headed to the 18th up a hole.

It was the time of day the Scottish call the gloaming, and their flags mixed with Union Jacks and St. George’s crosses as all four players hit their irons to within 12 feet. Jason Dufner — who looks from the neck up like a miserable, chubby boy whose mother stuffed him into his Sunday clothes for a family portrait on a hot day — sent the crowd into rapture by sinking his birdie. McIlroy missed, leaving only Poulter.

Make the putt, and Europe would be down 10–6. Miss it, and the U.S. would get a crucial half-point. Cameras flashed as he stood over the ball, framed by the blue European flags in the background. All the players and captains from both teams were gathered on the green, standing next to their wives and girlfriends. “Sweet hair,” someone yelled as he lined it up. And in the split second after the putter hit the ball, one last insult echoed out from somewhere in the gallery: “Nice shoes!”

But when the ball rolled in, and Poulter had his fifth straight birdie, they began to understand. 10–6.

Ryder Cup skywriting

It took 14 points for Europe to win the Ryder Cup, and it might seem a stretch to call Poulter a savior when he was responsible for only four of them. But it’s impossible to overstate what he did Saturday night. It was more than a win — it was a resuscitation. In the press conference afterward, Donald said those five holes gave the Europeans a heartbeat for Sunday. When Poulter was asked where he would rank himself among all match play golfers, Sergio Garcia chimed in, “He’s better than one.” You could hear the influence of that stretch in the songs of the European fans, who had finally found their voice, and you could see it in the grins of the European players. It was still a difficult margin, but for the first time in two days, the most important element of the Ryder Cup was on their side: momentum.

On Sunday, the Europeans overcame the largest Sunday deficit on foreign soil to stun the Americans and win the Cup. Bubba Watson’s opening tee shot went far right to start the morning, and it never got much better for the U.S. The disaster that followed will linger as a bad memory for at least two years, and possibly much, much longer. Poulter survived another 18 holes of insults in the second match (most brutally, fans chanted “Ma-jor Win-ner” on the first tee, contrasting Webb Simpson’s U.S. Open win with the gaping hole in Poulter’s résumé; then, on 15, a fan shouted “Open it up, you pansy!” when he decided to lay up) to win again and improve to 4-0 on the weekend. McIlroy, who had arrived in a police car just minutes before his match, beat Bradley as Michael Jordan and Pep Guardiola looked on. Mickelson blew a late lead as Justin Rose hit clutch putt after clutch putt, and Jim Furyk, who has spent a lifetime missing important Ryder Cup putts, missed what will hopefully be his last two as he collapsed against Sergio.

That left Stricker and Woods, who combined to go 0-3 on Friday and Saturday. They needed 1.5 points between them, but when Stricker missed his umpteenth short putt on 17, it opened the door for Martin Kaymer to close out the match. A few minutes and a six-foot putt later, Europe had its unthinkable 14th point. The day-long sucker punch finally connected; Europe had won.

And then, of course, it was madness. The American fans watched while the mob of European players celebrated on the 18th green. Kaymer stood in a pack of cameras waving a German flag, and Garcia told a reporter that the win was for Seve Ballesteros, the Spanish Ryder Cup legend who died last May. (In a moment that gave me goose bumps, a British gambling firm hired five planes to sky-write: “It’s not over. Go Europe. Spirit of Seve” midway through Sunday’s round.) Olazabal wept with the Spanish flag draped around his shoulders, and the Euro fans mocked the Americans with songs like “You’re Not Singing Anymore” and the Monty Python classic “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” I overheard a European caddy admit that he had been “shitting himself” as Kaymer stood over the last putt. Later, they all stood on a bridge above the fans and sprayed each other with champagne.

But the moment I’ll remember started with a cheer from a large contingent of British fans behind the ropes on 18. A few of them waved flags, some wore suits with the Union Jack plastered everywhere. “We want Poul-ter!” they shouted in unison, and the noise built as others took up the call. The chant grew and grew, and finally, from the mass on the green, Poulter emerged. He raised both arms, and they roared as he came. When he passed the green-side bunker, just steps from the fans, he finally crumbled. He sank to his knees, threw back his head, and broke down. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.