Europe ride wave of inspiration to capitalise on USA’s fatal gamble


The end came in the unlikeliest of places, on the 16th tee: a drive by Phil Mickelson, a splash of water, a hand proffered, a point conceded. Within seconds, the US captain Jim Furyk was jogging up the bank to offer a handshake of his own: to his opposite number Thomas Bjorn, the man who on the breezy outskirts of Paris had envisioned, engineered and executed a quite unlikely European victory in the 42nd Ryder Cup.

The man who won the winning point was Francesco Molinari: Open champion, history maker, the only European player ever to score five points out of five in a single competition, and the first on either side since 1979. Molinari, more than anyone on his side, exemplified a European team who came into the event as clear underdogs but who prevailed by playing bold, brilliant golf, who held their nerve and holed their putts and never once allowed their focus to waver.

And as it turned out, it was a trouncing: 17½-10½ the eventual margin of victory, the ease of the triumph belying a spine-tingling hour between about 3pm and 4pm, during which America cut Europe’s overnight 10-6 lead to 10½- 9½, during which they fleetingly believed, during which Europe fleetingly wobbled. But then, just as firmly, Europe slammed the door shut. There would be no “comeback of Notre Dame”. America’s 25-year wait for a win on European greens will become 29, and the post-mortem that awaits this latest defeat will last most of the way to Whistling Straits in 2020, and beyond to Rome in 2022.

The reasons why the highest-ranked team ever to take part in this competition so utterly and so collectively failed to show in Paris are many and varied. The spotlight will naturally fall on captain Furyk, and the decisions he took both during the weekend and in advance of it. The wildcard selection of Mickelson now looks like a grand and avoidable mistake, given his indifferent form for much of the year. Whether a Xander Schauffele or Kevin Kisner would have done much better is debatable, but with no points from Mickelson’s two outings, they could scarcely have done much worse.

In addition, many of Furyk’s pairings simply failed to gel; the failure to find an adequate partner for Tiger Woods cost them dearly; the inability to cohere his team around any sort of broader idea beyond their own personal pride also counts against him. Perhaps, in this most quintessentially European of settings, a little more snarl, a little more spit, a little more fire in the belly, would have served them better.

This was Bjorn’s pinnacle, his peak, his crowning glory

But Furyk was also the victim of his circumstances. The decision to host the season-ending Tour Championship just five days before the start of the Cup left many of the American team exhausted, emotionally and physically. Woods was a husk for most of the weekend, coughing and spluttering his way around the course, struggling to lift himself after the enormous high of East Lake on Sunday. Most of the US players didn’t bother to play the course at all in advance of this week: after all, why forgo a lucrative cheque, or some precious family time, for a competition months in advance?

Instead, the Americans simply trusted to their talent, to their competitive instincts, to the same skills that served them week in, week out. It was a fatal gamble. America were simply unprepared either for the unique challenge of Le Golf National course, or for the ferocity of the European assault. Only a handful of their number played close to their full potential. Woods, so resurgent on his own, again shrank in the team environment. Now, perhaps, we can truly say the old Woods is back.

There was no lack of passion there: the misery written on Woods’s features as he watched the celebrating Europeans testified to that. What they lacked, by contrast, was inspiration: the little bit of zip that comes from a partisan crowd, or a monster putt, or a little surge of red numbers. That, above all, was what Europe enjoyed in abundance: the capacity for a small single victory to undulate around the course and strengthen every other man on the team. The sight of Ian Poulter punching the European badge on his chest as if trying to give himself CPR, of Tommy Fleetwood standing on a buggy conducting the crowd, of Rory McIlroy doing a little jig despite having lost his own match in agonising circumstances, gave the impression not of a triumph divided by 12, but multiplied by 12.

Europe storm to Ryder Cup victory in Paris
And on a day that had the potential to turn ugly quickly, Europe played like champions, fought through their fatigue, overcame a number of early setbacks. A frazzled Fleetwood was swept aside 6&4 by Tony Finau, Justin Rose no match for Webb Simpson on the greens. McIlroy imploded on the final hole to give Justin Thomas a one-hole victory in the top match, and after a promising start America were well in it.

At which point, the Europeans simply dug in their heels and closed ranks. Paul Casey, whose last singles victory came 12 years ago against none other than Furyk, produced a superb birdie on the 17th to secure a half with Brooks Koepka. The harshly overlooked Thorbjorn Olesen destroyed an exhausted Justin Spieth 5&4. A fired-up Jon Rahm withstood a late charge from Woods to prevail at the 17th and win his first point of the weekend. Garcia beat Rickie Fowler to pass Sir Nick Faldo as Europe’s record points-scorer. For the first time since 2004 at Oakland Hills, every single European won at least one match. Truly, this was a collective effort.

And so in watery sunshine, Bjorn could finally drink in his moment: the culmination of two years’ assiduous work, perhaps even an entire career’s work. Like many of his charges, Bjorn never won an individual major, and almost certainly never will. This, then, was his pinnacle, his peak, his crowning glory: a moment he will never forget as long as he lives. As the sun went down over Paris, as a wave of jubilation rose from the lush green fairways of Le Golf National and across a continent, it was Europe’s Ryder Cup once more.