Ryder Cup 2012: Medinah miracle comes to pass for Europe
And so, after a sporting summer that has defied belief, the final miracle came to pass.
Europe's 14½-13½ victory over a stupefied United States team in golden Sunday sunshine at Medinah was many things - a nerve-mangling epic, an unprecedented comeback and a criminal collapse, golfing larceny on the grandest scale.
It was also, in a year when the extraordinary became commonplace, perhaps the most remarkable afternoon of all.
We have heard much of Seve Ballesteros all week, seen his image everywhere and listened as his name was evoked to inspire and illuminate.
Even by Seve's standards of escapology, this was surely impossible. Trailing 10-4 at one stage on Saturday, unable to cope with either course or crowds, the European team were plugged in a bunker behind a tree on another fairway.
Europe's biggest final-day comeback before this had been from a mere two points down in 1995. So comprehensively had they been outplayed over the opening two days that even the overnight 10-6 seemed nothing more than a valiant yet futile rally that would do little but soften the blow of inevitable defeat.
So how did it happen? How did the day that at one point had them 25-1 for the win end with Luke Donald spraying champagne all over a cavorting army of overseas support, with captain Jose Maria Olazabal blubbing tears of joy, with the "U-S-As" overwhelmed by "oles" and Ian Poulter conducting it all with half-cut glee?
It began as it surely had to - with Olazabal's first few singles selections all taking the lead early, silencing the boisterous home galleries for the first time and applying pressure to their rivals.
It then continued as it had not before - with European putts dropping like the autumn leaves all around, with American efforts skidding past and stopping short. For the first time, mixed in with the cigar smoke and smell of beer and barbecue drifting across the course, there was something else: doubt, and then escalating anxiety.
It was a magnificent performance from the whole European team and I have never seen a more exciting end to a Ryder Cup - and I've seen plenty.
Then, at the death, it ended only one way - with Olazabal's men standing tall while American captain Davis Love's much-vaunted home-boys crumbled and broke.
Five matches reached the 18th green. A US player won just one of them.
From one down with two to go, Justin Rose drained a pair of monstrous putts to beat Phil Mickelson. Poulter got his nose in front for the first time on 17 and birdied the last to see off Webb Simpson. Rory McIlroy birdied 14 and 15 to tame the charging Keegan Bradley, and Sergio Garcia survived those final two holes in one under as Jim Furyk bogeyed both.
European heroes were not hard to find, even if the first was somewhat unexpected.
How Europeans fared at Medinah
- I Poulter: Played 4 Won 4 Lost 0
- R McIlroy: Played 5 Won 3 Lost 2
- J Rose: Played 5 Won 3 Lost 2
- L Donald: Played 4 Won 2 Lost 2
- S Garcia: Played 4 Won 2 Lost 2
- L Westwood: Played 4 Won 2 Lost 2
- M Kaymer: Played 2 Won 1 Lost 1
- P Lawrie: Played 3 Won 1 Lost 2
- N Colsaerts: Played 4 Won 1 Lost 3
- G McDowell: Played 4 Won 1 Lost 3
- F Molinari: Played 3 Won 0 Lost 2 Halved 1
- P Hanson: Played 2 Won 0 Lost 2
Had it not been for the Illinois state trooper who picked up the late-running McIlroy at the team hotel and used his sirens to usher him through the streets to Medinah with 10 minutes to spare, the 23-year-old would have conceded the first hole and quite possibly several more.
For Poulter, who has not won a tournament since May 2011 and was here only by gift of a captain's pick, this was his greatest hour.
Four points from four matches leaves the beef from the bone. Endlessly energised, angrily indomitable, he became the standard around which his comrades could muster.
In overturning Mickelson when all seemed lost, Rose provided the pivotal moment. When he sank that long, curving 30-footer on 17, European fans started to believe. When he held his nerve to do the same on 18, they knew it was on.
Tucked away in the ranks, Paul Lawrie dished out a mauling. His only previous outing in the Ryder Cup saw him on the wrong end of the other great comeback in the competition's storied history, the US onslaught at Brookline. Thirteen years on, his 5&3 thrashing of Brandt Snedeker - a week ago the winner of the £6m Fed-Ex Cup - was the most agreeable revenge.
And what of the man who ended it all?
Martin Kaymer has been woefully out of form all summer. He was dropped for three of the first four sessions, if not a liability than a fault-line to be carefully concealed.
Twenty-one years after his compatriot Bernhard Langer missed a six-footer at Kiawah to retain the trophy, the second German to play in the competition rolled home one from almost identical length to lay those ghosts to rest.
We should have known that we could trust a German to deliver in a shoot-out.
"Olazabal came up to me on the 16th and told me we needed my point to win the Ryder Cup," he said afterwards. "I loved that feeling. Loved it."
For all that Europe's 12 good men won this, the US's tossed it away on the Illinois winds.
No-one who has never stood on a green with the world watching on should use the word "choke". But the stony, downcast faces of Love's team afterwards told their own tale: this was in our grasp, and we somehow let it slip.
To win just three matches from 12, on home soil, on a course set up specifically for their skills and 40,000 baying boozers roaring them on, is the sort of return that haunts a man until his fading hours.
Team USA record at Medinah
- D Johnson: Played 3 Won 3 Lost 0
- K Bradley: Played 4 Won 3 Lost 1
- J Dufner: Played 4 Won 3 Lost 1
- Z Johnson: Played 4 Won 3 Lost 1
- P Mickelson: Played 4 Won 3 Lost 1
- B Watson: Played 4 Won 2 Lost 2
- W Simpson: Played 4 Won 2 Lost 2
- M Kuchar: Played 3 Won 2 Lost 1
- B Snedeker: Played 3 Won 1 Lost 2
- J Furyk: Played 3 Won 1 Lost 2
- T Woods: Played 4 Won 0 Lost 3 Halved 1
- S Stricker: Played 4 Won 0 Lost 4
Furyk folded as his putts on 17 and 18 stayed afloat. The next man through went from Stricker to stricken in the space of one butchered approach. Behind them both, Tiger Woods - winless from his four matches, grey-faced and silent - looked a bit-player alone on the biggest stage.
For their captain Love it was a horrible end to a week when he had done almost everything right. About his only misjudged move was predicting, live on television midway through Sunday afternoon, that Jason Dufner would be the man to hole the winning putt.
Could he do anything about his players' disintegration? No. There are many things a Ryder Cup captain can do, but hit straight irons and hole clutch putts he cannot.
For his opposite number Olazabal it was everything he had hoped: a validation of his decision to stack his big hitters up early in the singles order, a fitting tribute to his old pal Seve, an avenging of the Brookline defeat to which he had the front-row seat.
On Saturday night, just as Seve had throughout his career, he talked only of belief. You can do this, he told his players. You will do this.
For the Ryder Cup itself, the 39th edition has been another remarkable chapter in a story that so seldom disappoints.
You might argue that it is becoming one-sided; Europe has won the last two, five of the last six and seven of the last nine. But today, as in each of those, there was theatre like few other sporting events can provide.
So that was our summer of 2012. An Englishman won the Tour de France. A Scot won the US Open. In between, Britons won gold after gold at a home Olympics and won even more in the Paralympics that followed.
Watching these Europeans celebrate at the end of it - Poulter swirling a union flag over his head, Nicolas Colsaerts sparking up consecutive cigarettes, McIlroy staggering under the weight of a champagne bottle the size of his legs, all of it under a perfect blue sky, songs ringing out across the lawns - there could only be happiness at its final passing.
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