Beaten

I announced at 9:30 on Sunday evening “I think it’s gone.” I was right.

The Wife looked at me sympathetically, like I was talking about the dog dying. By that stage the writing on the wall had been transformed from an early optimistic blue to blood-splattered red. I had clung to the wreckage of my hopes for the previous hour, but there was no rescue boat on the horizon and I couldn’t hold on any more. It was too painful. I had to let go. And when I did, the pain melted away and I just felt numb, like Leonardo DiCaprio drifting into the frozen abyss after the Titanic had sunk.

We lost. The 2016 Ryder Cup. We lost. There, I’ve said it twice now, it must be true. I watched the final moments in a sombre silence. The last few matches finishing off, the interviews bathed in a warm October sun, the American smiles. By then, the friends had drifted home, the beer was tasting flat, and I was alone on a big sofa that had seemed so vibrant and expectant just hours earlier.

On the Monday morning the cleansing started early, before the boys’ breakfast where they might have remembered to ask me the score. The flags came down, the Mont-ometer was packed away for another two years, and the unopened champagne was removed from the fridge. I had to return to normality as soon as possible, put it behind me and move on. No time for extended grief. After all, it was just a golf match. It was just a golf match, Neil.

But throughout the day, it would not be packed away into a distant cache of my memory, to be retrieved in 2018, if not deleted before then by the anti-virus software of my self-preservation. It kept springing up at strange moments: making a cup of coffee I lamented the five matches that went down the 18th with only half a point ensuing, picking up the post from the doormat I wondered why Lee had played on Saturday evening and Rafa had not, and on the rowing machine I pondered whether Rory had become a little too excited.

17 – 11 was the final score, which looks like a comfortable victory for the Americans, but it felt excruciatingly close. Perhaps every Ryder Cup is decided by those fine margins and I just haven’t noticed because I am revelling in the joy of a European win? I needed to confront the truth, work it out, face the facts. I went back to my golf-strewn Sky box and reviewed the footage, sifting through the evidence like an air crash investigator searching for significance.

At 6:30pm we were up in 5 matches and down in 2, and the two we were down in (Spieth and Holmes) were matches that we went on to win. We had already closed the three-point gap. By 7:15, with all the matches out on the course, there was even more blue on the board. Optimism crept into worried demeanours.

I became fixated on the top match between McIlroy and Reed, both captains sending their most potent weapon out first as a statement of intent. It was one of the most eagerly-awaited clashes in Ryder Cup history, and it did not disappoint. Early birdies, fist-pumps, roars and gestures were just a prelude to what was to come.

All square coming to the short eighth, and McIlroy holed a 55’ putt for birdie. His body erupted with raw emotion, screaming at the partisan and vitriolic galleries “I can’t hear you!” Reed followed him in from 20’ and again those galleries went wild.

mci-v-reed

Then, in as fierce a cauldron as you are likely to get in sport, a moment of recognition and respect for the opposition – McIlroy smiled, Reed reciprocated, and as the two protagonists left the green they fist-pumped and patted each other on the back. In that one moment of supreme sportsmanship, I believe the match, and ultimately the Ryder Cup was lost.

The energy was dissipated. Both bunkered their drives at the next hole and made bogey. McIlroy’s putter turned suddenly cold. He couldn’t scream like that for the next two hours, maintain that level of passion and still be able to swing a golf club – he had backed himself into an emotional corner of no return. Reed also suffered a downswing on the rollercoaster of momentum, but he at least had the crowd onside and had left himself more room to manoeuvre with his less manic reactions to events.

By 8:20 Europe were up in only three matches and down in six, including the McIlroy/Reed encounter. As he stood over his approach to the 16th green, and another American idiot shouted from the crowd, McIlroy caught his pitch heavy and the match could not be salvaged.

I’m not blaming McIlroy, a guy who I have long-admired for possessing both a sublime golf swing and a humility absent from so many other top sports stars. He is 27, came in for a lot of personal abuse over the three days, and I respect him for standing up to it, even if he did become over-emotional in the process. He played brilliantly, with a fierce pride, for three long days and was ultimately let down by many of his teammates who could not find their top form.

Neither, strangely, am I blaming the crowd. From a situation that looked distinctly Brookline-esque on the Friday, the American organisers, players and noticeably the majority of the American crowd took steps to censure the extreme outbursts. It still happened, of course (McIlroy’s disrupted shot on the 16th led to all supporters booing the culprit who was then ejected), and may well have had an effect on the outcome of some matches, but it’s difficult to know how it can be totally eliminated in a modern-day sporting event.

In amongst the slow-motion dissolution of hope, there was some remarkable golf being played, not least by Garcia and Mickelson who shared an astonishing 19 birdies in halving their match. Garcia also received some disgraceful denigration, and that he was still able to produce his best singles performance at his eighth attempt elevated the man, for so long in the shadow of compatriots Ballesteros and Olazabal, to one of the all-time Ryder Cup greats.

His partnership with rookie Rafa Cabrera-Bello was one of the European highlights, along with the astonishing debut of Thomas Pieters who many of the American audience (perhaps even some Europeans) would walk past in the street. His assured performance, and impressive swing under pressure, has marked him out as a future major winner and European stalwart.

Captain Clarke got that wildcard choice correct, but it is difficult to pinpoint what his close friend Lee Westwood brought to proceedings. Too many of our experienced players, including Olympic champion Justin Rose, failed to live up to expectations, and it is here where we must search our soul for the answers to our savage demise, rather than the fruitless efforts of some of our overawed rookies or the crazed shouts of a few American imbeciles.

So now the post mortem is done, at least in my own mind. Although it hurts just as much, this loss is not quite as bitter as Brookline, and sprinkled with some moments of magic that will brighten the memory over the next two years. We reconvene in Paris where I hope our team plays better, the home crowd show the minority of mindless American morons how to behave, and we give the opposition such a comprehensive beating that even they will struggle to remember Minnesota.