Ryder Cup Day 3: Americans Triumph At Long Last To Lay The Ghost Of Medinah To Rest

There was no Miracle in Minnesota for the Europeans.  It was more Humdrum at Hazeltine as the Americans won the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2008.  It was a long awaited and well deserved victory, even if their fans let the side down at times with their boorish behaviour.  We will have to put it down to their desperation to win back the famous old trophy.  The victory was also redemption for American captain Davis Love III, who was the losing captain at Medinah in 2010 when Europe made the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history to win.

With Europe three points behind going into Sunday’s singles, captain Darren Clarke had no choice but to front load his team, putting out the big guns, Messrs. McIlroy, Stenson, Rose and Garcia, together with top performing rookies Thomas Pieters and Rafa Cabrera-Bello, to try and give Europe a strong start.  It seemed to be working as Europe started brightly and were soon colouring the board blue.  But there was always a feeling that the outcome of the mouthwatering opening tie between the two teams’ rabble-rousing star performers, Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy, would decide the destiny of the trophy.

The front nine of the match produced one of the most staggering displays of golf ever seen, with both men storming to 5 under after only 8 holes.  At times it was more akin to a boxing match, as the two slugged it out, trading birdies and the odd eagle, blow for blow, and whipping up the already frenzied crowd into near meltdown.  The match reached its zenith on the 8th when McIlroy holed a monster 60ft putt and cheekily taunted the fans by cupping his ear in defiance.  Patrick Reed clearly took it as a challenge.  His response?  A 25ft birdie of his own!  Take that!  Reed nearly imploded with delight while the crowd went bananas.  McIlroy could only smile wryly at Reed’s one-upmanship.  The two men bumped fists like ragged boxers acknowledging a grudging respect for each other.

The extraordinary level of play was physically and emotionally draining and couldn’t possibly last.  McIlroy needed to win if Europe were going to stand any chance of a comeback, but on the back nine he started to wilt under the relentless onslaught of the pumped up American, who just couldn’t miss.  Although McIlroy courageously took it to the last hole, Reed was never going to yield.  With McIlroy’s defeat ended the European challenge.

No one had told Sergio Garcia though.  If Mcllroy’s battle with Reed was a Rumble in the Jungle, then Garcia’s fight with Phil Mickelson was the Thriller in Manila.  It was like a crazy golf putting contest as they exchanged birdie after birdie, hitting an incredible 19 birdies between them (10 for Phil, 9 for Sergio) to finish with 9 under par 63s.  And all for a half point each!  Sadly for Europe, the tide had already turned decisively in favour of the Americans, making the outcome of the match an anti-climax.  The American team were simply too strong for the Europeans, winning 7 1/2 of the 12 singles, to triumph emphatically by 17 points to 11.

The intensity of the American players and fans was the defining feature of the tournament.  The Americans were worthy winners.  They wanted it more and the course was set up for their superior short game.  Europe looked out of sorts throughout the contest and never really recovered from the opening morning 4-0 whitewash.  Some of their most experienced players, such as Westwood, Willet and Kaymer, didn’t show up, and there were probably too many rookies in the team, though conversely, their biggest positive was the outstanding performance of rookies Thomas Pieters and Rafa Cabrera-Bello, who competed like seasoned veterans, and too often showed up their more senior compatriots.  Some of Darren Clarke’s decisions were also questionable, particularly for the crucial Saturday afternoon fourballs, breaking up the winning Spanish combination and playing the clearly out of form Willett and Westwood, whose capitulation in the final two holes was possibly the pivotal moment that tilted the Ryder Cup in America’s direction.

Nevertheless, an American victory was a good thing for the Ryder Cup.  Sport needs competition to thrive, and the Ryder Cup has been too one sided in recent years.  The US needed a win, not only to maintain their interest and motivation in the competition, but perhaps the Europeans’ as well.  Europe looked a little jaded and played like a team bloated with success.  Losing the Ryder Cup will, hopefully, reignite their desire to win it back at the first attempt.  The fervour of the American gallery, though it spilled over into boorishness a little too frequently, also demonstrates a healthy passion and deep regard for the Ryder Cup, which can only be good for golf.  Bring on Paris in 2018!

Ryder Cup Day 2: Swings And Roundabouts, Halves And Chokes

They say football is a game of two halves, but today, that adage belonged to the Ryder Cup.  The half that was, and the half that was never to be.  If Europe go on to win this Ryder Cup, they can thank the half they somehow eked out against the odds this morning in a match they were dead and buried in.  If, as now seems more likely, USA win the trophy, it may well have been a missed tiddler by Lee Westwood on the 18th late in the day that turned the tide of this tournament.

Unfortunately, Lee Westwood has form as a ‘choker’.  His proclivity for missing putts that are easier to hole than miss is why he has never won a Major, but in the past he has always been reliable in Ryder Cups.  Which is no doubt why he was captain Darren Clarke’s pick even though he is woefully out of form.  It is a decision that has, so far, backfired spectacularly.  Pairing him with the personally troubled (provoking sibling issues) Danny Willett for the afternoon fourballs was probably also not the best decision since, as Danny Willett admitted afterwards, they ‘couldn’t quite back one another up’.  Between the two of them, they somehow contrived to lose a match they could, and perhaps should, have won.  Significantly, losing the half point has helped to shift the momentum firmly in the Americans’ favour when they had been reeling from scraping a draw in a match they were winning easily.

An improbable comeback from the Spanish pairing of Sergio Garcia and rookie Rafa Cabrera-Bello in the final match against Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, when they were 4 down with 6 to play, to claim a vital half, had helped Europe to cut the overnight deficit from 5-3 to 6 1/2 to 5 1/2 after the morning foresomes.  The afternoon fourballs looked to be heading for a draw with Europe up in the first two matches and the Americans ahead in the last two matches.  However, in the second match out, Willett and Westwood twice lost the lead against J B Holmes and Ryan Moore to be all square going into the 17th hole.  Then, they both bogeyed to lose the 17th to a par putt.  But they gave themselves an excellent chance to win the final hole and gain a crucial half point with a great approach shot by Lee Westwood to within 3 feet of the hole.  Now, it just required steady nerves and steady hands.  And anyone but Lee Westwood to take the putt.  In the push of a putt, Europe had lost three out of the four afternoon fourballs and fallen an almost insurmountable three points behind – 9 1/2 to 6 1/2 points – going into Sunday’s singles.

Of course, a three point deficit isn’t completely unassailable.  After all, Europe were four points behind going into the singles at Medinah.  And we all know what happened next.  So does the USA captain Davis Love III.  He also happened to be the captain in 2012 when an inspired Europe came back from 10-6 down to win.  Another miraculous European comeback would also serve the ill mannered and unsporting American crowd right, who have once again shamed the American players, who, in contrast, have behaved with impeccable sportsmanship throughout the contest.  It is one thing to cheer for your own, but quite another to heckle and abuse the opposition players and shout out for balls to go in the water or miss the hole.  It would be worth Europe winning just to have them silenced.

 

Ryder Cup Day 1: Blazing Red Turns To Bonny Blue

Confession time.  The Ryder Cup has always been a tad problematic for yours truly here at Random Towers.  On account of the fact that my favourite golfer plays for the other team.  And he’s not just any player either.  He’s a major player, a big name, a Ryder Cup regular.  The sort of player you need to want to lose if you want your team to win.  I spend the whole year rooting for him at every golf tournament he plays and then for 3 days once every two years, I need him to lose.  Badly.  Ambiguous or what?

Obviously, we at Random Towers support Europe, but my favourite player is Phil Mickelson of the USA (not to mention the soft spot for Dustin Johnson and a confusing interest-hate spot for Jordan Spieth).  Also not mentioning that the heir apparent to big Phil is Rory McIlroy, poster boy for the European team.  So of course, inevitably, they had to be pitted against each other in Friday’s opening morning foursomes at Hazeltine.

Now, illustrious player he may be but Phil Mickelson hasn’t exactly covered himself in Ryder Cup glory.  Aside from an uninspiring playing record, there was the unedifying criticism of losing USA captain and everyone’s old favourite, Tom Watson, two years ago.  Earlier this week, he continued his unnecessary bad captaincy critique, this time dredging up old wounds from way back in 2004 when grumbling about how the then captain Hal Sutton had the temerity to pair him with Tiger Woods when there was very little love lost between them.  Come on, Phil.  I love you man, but move on already.  Phil was in need of some actual Ryder Cup points if he wanted to earn some redemptive brownie points with golf fans.  So who to support – Phil or Rory?

The dithering lasted until the first partisan cries of ‘OOOHSA’ ‘OOOHSA’.  Danny Willett’s vexatious brother may have been very wrong to write his incendiary article mocking the unruly American golfing gallery, but he did have a point.  They are notorious for their lack of sportsmanship during Ryder Cups.  The European fans, to give them their due, are fanatical but fair.  The Americans are just fanatical – about USA.  Great if you happen to support USA, but incredibly aggravating if you don’t.

They were in their element as red dominated the board, with the US team whitewashing Europe by winning all four of the morning games, with Phil and partner Ricky Fowler coming back from 2 down with 4 to play to win 1 up on the last against Rory and debutant Andy Sullivan.  Of course, I was happy (and relieved) for Phil, but miffed for Rory and Europe that they had thrown it away towards the end.  Thankfully, there was no conflict in the afternoon as Phil was rested for the fourballs.  The Europeans must have enjoyed a good lunch because they came storming back.  The rowdy home crowd was temporarily subdued as Europe won three out of the four matches, with only Brandt Snedeker’s fire hot putter saving the Americans from being whitewashed themselves.  It was poetic that Rory McIlroy should score the final point with a thrilling eagle on the 16th to bring Europe back into contention.  Rory had been getting wound up by the factional crowd all day so appeared determined to take pleasure in silencing them.  After he landed the winning putt, he bowed theatrically to the muted gallery before punching the air emphatically.  Point made, as well as gained.

Unfortunately for me, guess who’s up against whom in the opening match of tomorrow morning’s foursomes?  Yep, it’s  Phil v Rory Part II.  If they end up facing each other in the singles, I will cry.

Mickelson Magic Not Enough To Win Open

Last Thursday, he came within a whisker of doing what no one has ever done before in the history of golf: shooting a 62.  On the 18th green, his ball lipped the hole and somehow stayed out.  It should have been a moment to savour, but Phil Mickelson was left disappointed.  So near and yet…

Fast forward to Sunday: he shot a final round 65, -6 under for the day, 4 birdies, an eagle and no dropped shots, playing one of the greatest rounds of golf that would have won 140 out of the previous 144 Opens, but Phil Mickelson was left disappointed.  So near and yet…

It must be seem very strange to have played one of the greatest tournaments of your career, and taken part in an epic final round duel that will go down in golfing history, yet end up feeling like you have got the booby prize.  The golfing gods were not with Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon.  In hindsight, that should have been obvious from what happened on Thursday.  If the gods had been with him, he would have shot that history making 62 on Thursday.  If the gods had been with him, he would have holed the 2nd rather than hit the pin and eagled the 16th rather than miss by centimetres on Sunday.  Phil was destined to be the nearly man, the what could have been man, at Troon.

But what a ride he gave us.  That’s the thing with mercurial geniuses.  You just never know what you’re gonna get.  All you know is it won’t be predictable, and it won’t be ordinary.  Mickelson does things with a golf ball that others didn’t know was possible.  He gets into trouble, he gets out of trouble.  One moment you are tearing your hair out in frustration as yet another wayward tee shot nearly lands in the next county; the next you are slapping your forehead in disbelief as a ball buried deep in the rough or hiding behind a tree is miraculously clubbed out to within a few feet of the pin to save the day.  Yep, life is never dull with Phil the Thrill.

On Sunday, in that jaw dropping final round showdown, Phil was playing against the golfing equivalent of the Terminator.  Henrik Stenson simply would not go away.  He just kept coming at Phil.  He was relentlessly consistent; relentlessly finding fairways, relentlessly hitting greens, relentlessly making birdies, and Phil needed all his Houdini style magical brilliance and powers of recovery just to stay in touch.

In the end, it took a monster putt of 45 ft on the 15th from Henrik Stenson to break Phil Mickelson’s resolve.  Strangely, it’s not the first time that’s happened to Phil.  In the legendary 2012 Ryder Cup, dubbed the Miracle of Medinah, Mickelson was 1 up with 2 to play in his singles match against Justin Rose, when Rose unbelievably birdied a 40ft bomb from the edge of the green to draw level, and then went on to birdie the last and win the match.  It took a miracle putt to beat Phil Mickelson that day.  And it took a miracle putt for Henrik Stenson to finally wrench the Open from Phil Mickelson on Sunday.

Even then, he still needed some more help from those obliging golfing gods.  Mickelson earned himself an eagle opportunity on the 16th that just missed the hole by a whisker.  Then, on the 18th, with the Open seemingly in the bag, Stenson’s final drive trundled alarmingly towards the infamous Norman bunker (more quicksand than bunker) but dribbled to a halt on the edge.  Had Mickelson’s dropped in the hole and Stenson’s dropped in the bunker, who knows what might have been.  But the Claret Jug wasn’t Phil’s to win.  For Henrik Stenson would not be denied.  His steely resolve melted Mickelson’s magic.  Stenson birdied 4 out of the last 5 holes to end with an -8 under par 63, the lowest total to win a Major, and his final total score of -20 was the lowest scored to win the Open, eclipsing Tiger Woods’ -19 total at St Andrews in 2000.

It was a stupendous performance from the stoic Swede (are there any other kind?) and he was a deserved winner of the Claret Jug.  But Phil Mickelson surely wins the prize for having the most surreal tournament.  When he thinks back on this Open, he probably won’t know whether to laugh or cry.  It seems somehow apt, because golfing with Phil has always been a bittersweet experience.  A sweet and sour dish of brilliance and frustration, but never bland.  And once tasted, never forgotten.

 

 

No Road to Rio for Rory McIlroy

So, R-Mac says it as it is.  Yes, it was blunt.  Some of it was rather unwise.  But most of it was true.  Golf has no place in the Olympics.

Rory McIlroy, along with all true sports fans, will be watching “the stuff that matters” at the Olympics.  Like the running, and the swimming, the fencing and the throwing, the shooting, the canoeing, the tumbling and the rowing.  Proper, traditional Olympic sports where winning an Olympic medal is the pinnacle of achievement.  That should be the only criteria for inclusion.

Golf is in the Olympics because its powers that be want to grow its ‘brand’.  But why is it acceptable for a sport such as golf, which stages prestigious tournaments around the world and hands out millions in prize money to its top players, to use the Olympic Games as a marketing tool to grow its brand?  The Olympics are supposed to be a global sporting competition that celebrate athletic endeavour, not a marketing convention.

Yes, the top male golfers may have found an extremely convenient excuse in the threat of the Zika virus, but their en masse withdrawal reflects their tacit disapproval of golf’s participation in the Games, even if Adam Scott was the only one forthright enough to say it outright.  Predictably, the players have been condemned as selfish and accused of not playing because there is no money involved – which may or may not be true – but that accusation is rather ironic given the cynical money making exercise the Olympics have become.  Surely if the players were so greedy, they would be rushing to participate and increase their global profile so they could make more money out of it even if they weren’t directly paid for competing, not staying away like there was a potential virus going around.

Of course, there might be another, more prosaic explanation: the Olympics are a scheduling nightmare for the players.  The Games are in the way of golf’s own Olympics – the Majors.  The Majors are what matter in golf.  Golfers do not dream of winning Olympic gold; they dream of cradling the Claret Jug and wearing the Green Jacket.

The biggest of them, The Open, starts this week, and the US PGA will follow straight after, because it had to be bumped forward from its traditional August slot to accommodate the Olympics in the same month.  So basically, the players are being forced to play two Majors (did I mention they are the tournaments that actually matter in golf?) back to back in the space of two weeks.  And hot on the heels of the Olympics comes the Ryder Cup in September.  Plus, there are other events taking place on the Tour.  No wonder the players want to avoid the Olympics.  How the devil are they supposed to fit it all in?  Particularly without compromising the quality of their performance?

Obviously nobody within golf’s governing body, the IGF, had the foresight to realise what a scheduling headache they would be letting themselves in for every four years when they were desperately lobbing the IOC for inclusion in the Olympics.  A quick glance at the golfing calendar would have revealed that the Olympics fall bang in the middle of the last two Majors of the season.  This is in contrast to tennis, where there is a longer gap between Grand Slams, giving the players ample time to indulge in the Olympic experience, and it perhaps explains their unstinting support for the Olympics.  But for golf, the IGF face the prospect of having to change their golfing calendar every fourth year, to accommodate the Olympics.  Cue quadrennially unhappy golfers.

Golfers are entitled to prioritise the Majors and the Tour because those are the events that define a golfer’s career and legacy.  And yes, the money comes in handy too.  We have all got to make a living.  Instead of castigating the players for not being interested in competing at an event which is of no relevance to their sport, the critics should direct their opprobrium at golf’s governing body for their short-sightedness in pursuit of brand growth.

Golf doesn’t need to be in the Olympics to grow the game; golf’s greatest marketing tool is its own players.  What the sport needs is for its top players, such as Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, to play great, entertaining golf, win Majors, and create a barnstorming rivalry in the way of the ‘big four’ in tennis.  And the best place for them to showcase their talents isn’t in the exotic tropics of Rio, but at golf’s spiritual home in bonny, blustery Scotland, where its most prestigious tournament, The Open, is taking place this week.

As the saying goes, there’s no place like home.

Dustin’s Done, Dusted and Docked

What was astonishing about Dustin Johnson’s US Open victory on Sunday wasn’t that he actually got his hands on a major at last, nor that yet again he was involved in a controversial incident that saw him docked a stroke, nor even that the USGA were utterly incompetent in their administration of the rules; but that nobody – players, pundits, officials and golfing journos – was aware that the golfing rules on moving balls had changed earlier in the year.  Everyone kept blathering on about how Dustin hadn’t ‘addressed the ball’ on the 5th green when his ball started to move, but the new rules state that if the weight of evidence indicates that a player may have caused the ball to move, even if there is an element of doubt, the player will incur a 1 stoke penalty (Rule 18-2).

So the USGA were right in principle to penalise Johnson.  Obviously where they went wrong was to delay doling out the penalty until the end, which inevitably ruined the climax of the event as no one knew what the correct score was.  It soured the atmosphere and clearly affected the players.  Johnson was informed of the possible penalty on the 12th hole, and subsequently seemed to lose his edge for the next few holes, while his rivals went into free fall.  It was very, very fortunate for the USGA that, in the end, Johnson was able to regain his composure and win by a margin of more than 2 shots.

If Shane Lowry needs any consolation for blowing a 4 shot lead and collapsing at the death, he can give himself a generous pat on the back for playing his part in creating an unequivocal margin of victory for Dustin Johnson.  Imagine the pandemonium if Dustin had won by just one shot and then been told in the clubhouse that erm, sorry mate, we have decided to give you a one shot penalty, so erm, you haven’t actually won.  Johnson’s 4 stroke (amended to 3 stroke) win didn’t just let the USGA off the hook; it saved golf’s credibility.

The moral of the story?  Firstly, if you are going to make a decision, be decisive and make it.  If you need to stop play to do so, do it.  Don’t dither.  Secondly, if you are going to change your rules, try to make them less subjective, not more.  Oh, and when you have done so, do try to tell everyone about it.

What’s wrong with being lucky?

There’s a well-known old proverb that it is better to be born lucky than rich.  But in sport, luck is a dirty word.  To dare suggest that someone might have got a tad lucky on their way to wining is tantamount to insulting both their ability and their work ethic.  Such temerity is brusquely dismissed with sarcastic ripostes such as the famous quote attributed to 9 time Major winning golfer Gary Player: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”  This defensiveness is understandable, of course.  Who likes to be told they didn’t deserve their hard-won success; after all, that’s what is being implied, isn’t it, when we say someone was lucky?

On Sunday, Danny Willett won the Masters because Jordan Spieth came to grief on the 12th hole with a quadruple bogey.  To put it bluntly: Willett won because Spieth blew it.  At least, that’s how the American papers saw it, though most British fans would take umbrage with such a seemingly facile perspective, citing Willett’s flawless, bogey-free five under par 67 final round versus Spieth’s inconsistent one over 73 score.  Obviously Willett deserved to win.  However, is it wrong to suggest that Willett only got the opportunity to win because Spieth faltered on the final few holes?  In other words: Willett got lucky that Spieth got wobbly?  And if he did, what’s wrong with being lucky?

A few years ago, ex-England cricketer Ed Smith, wrote a thought provoking book on the concept of luck and its often pivotal role in the outcome of success and failure in life and sport.  In ‘Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters’, Smith makes a compelling case for acknowledging, and even embracing, the role of luck in sport.  Nevertheless, Smith’s book is not a polemic.  It does not pit luck against hard work or talent, those two favoured designators of success, but simply accords luck its place alongside them in the sporting narrative.

For there is no doubt that luck – good and bad – plays its part in sport (as it does in life), and to dismiss it, particularly in relation to success – strange how it always tends to rear its head as a convenient means of explaining failure – is disingenuous, because sport is littered with remarkable tales of luck.  For instance, the Denmark football team winning the 1992 European Championships even though they failed to qualify for the tournament, and only got in as lucky losers because Yugoslavia were disqualified for fighting a civil war; or tennis player Goran Ivanisevic, having to beg for a wildcard from the Wimbledon committee so he could play in the 2001 tournament, and then memorably going on to win it, helped by a timely rain delay when he was losing in the semi final.  Perhaps, most extraordinarily, Australian speedskater Stephen Bradbury winning Olympic gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, having been 20 yards behind at the finish, simply by being the last man standing as all the contenders took each other out.  Danny Willett himself was lucky in the first instance even to be playing at the Masters because his wife had been due to give birth to their child on the final day, but the baby arrived prematurely, enabling Willett to compete at the last minute.

Such are the twists of fate, or fortune, or destiny, chance, luck, kismet, providence, or whatever you want to call it.  But whichever way you define it, you cannot deny its existence in sporting endeavour.  I have always believed there are four requisite components to achieving success in sport – talent, application, character, and luck.   Yet the first three are commonly taken for granted, while no one ever dares admit to luck being a contributing factor.  To acknowledge luck is not to denigrate the innate gifts of the talented athlete or to disparage their character and dedication to their vocation, nor to undermine their capacity to control their own destiny; it is to recognise and accept human susceptibility to the vicissitudes of life.

Ultimately, although luck can, and does, provide a gilded opportunity to attain success, it is the ability to take that propitious chance which separates the successful from the rest.  When Spieth lost the lead at the 12th, there were two other players besides Willett who were also in contention to win:  Lee Westwood and Dustin Johnson.  Yet, the moment the Masters was there for the taking, the two perennial bridesmaids faltered on the way to the altar.  In contrast, Willett grasped his chance with ruthless efficiency; coolly birdieing the 16th to reinforce his lead and then making a nerve jangling, par saving chip at the 17th, when a bogey seemed the most likely outcome, with the assured steeliness and steady composure of a champion.  It may have been luck that had provided Willett with his opportunity, but it was his character, determination, and endless hours of hard work preparing his game for just that moment, which won it for him.

So maybe that’s the secret to success:  you have to be ready to be lucky.  And that takes a lot of hard work, and not inconsiderable amount of talent and character.