News & Opinion

Can U.S. still win? History says yes, but …

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Jim Furyk didn't say whether he is a big believer in fate, but he remembers captain Ben Crenshaw wagging a finger and telling the media, "I have a good feeling about tomorrow. That's all I'm gonna say.” With that proclamation, Crenshaw left the news conference after Day 2 of the 1999 Ryder Cup. With the U.S. trailing 10-6 heading into Sunday’s singles, Crenshaw’s proclamation was golf's version of a mic drop.

“I remember every damn word of it,” Furyk said.

The next day, the U.S. rallied from four points down at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., for the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history. In 2012, Europe matched the feat, storming back from a 10-6 deficit on foreign soil to complete the “Miracle at Medinah.”

“That was one of the worst days of my career,” Furyk said. “I remember it probably even better, to be honest with you. The feeling of the momentum switching; the feeling of hearing the European crowd, and knowing, looking up on the board and seeing blue, it's a tough feeling to stomach. It reminded me very much of ’99, and unfortunately, I lost the 17th and 18th hole to Sergio [Garcia], and my match was one of the key ones. I remember it very well. It's probably in my list of top three worst nightmares in golf.”

Furyk's team will have to become just the third to erase a 10-6 deficit if the U.S. is to retain the Ryder Cup today. His counterpart, European captain Thomas Bjorn, knows the history. That includes this fact: five of the previous nine Ryder Cups were 10-6 or a larger margin entering Sunday, and twice the team trailing has hoisted the cup.

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Captain Jim Furyk (left), Jordan Spieth and the rest of the American team face a tall task today in the Ryder Cup: erase a 4-point deficit.

© GOLFFILE/THOS CAFFREY
Captain Jim Furyk (left), Jordan Spieth and the rest of the American team face a tall task today in the Ryder Cup: erase a 4-point deficit.

“This is not over,” Bjorn said. “I’d never get ahead of myself. I’ve seen it all happen before, and we know that we have to go out and play hard tomorrow and be focused.”

The captains tied to outguess each other, secretly listing the order of their teams for the final day. Furyk front-loaded his singles lineup, counting on Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Webb Simpson and Tiger Woods to ignite a comeback (scores/pairings).

“Any time a team's come back – now twice in this event, from four points – it's been a fast start and a solid middle-to-late part of the lineup,” Furyk said.

He’s right. In 1999, the U.S. won the first six matches; in 2012, the Euros put blue on the board in the first five. Momentum can shift quickly in match play, said Jordan Spieth, adding that it's critical to create a seed of doubt.

“If we get a few points early, the pressure shifts to them,” Spieth said. “It becomes a quiet and uneasy feeling around here.”

How the U.S. dug itself a hole is a story in itself (see related story by Alex Miceli). The Americans are in this position for a variety of reasons, notably:

  • Patrick Reed, known as Captain America for his theatrics in the 2016 Ryder Cup, is 0-2 and might not have broken 80 on Saturday morning.
  • The most accurate driver of the ball on the American side might be its captain. The U.S. team has spent too much time playing from the cabbage.
  • Tiger Woods looks out of sorts and is winless in three matches.
  • Furyk made a calculated mistake when he slotted Phil Mickelson into foursomes instead of four-balls on Friday and then sat him all day Saturday. If not for his role in allowing Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas to rub his belly for good luck – his biggest on-course contribution this week – Mickelson could have accompanied wife Amy to the Louvre.
  • Each of Bjorn's four wild-card picks has delivered at least one point, and six in total; Furyk's four choices have combined for only one point.
  • Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari improved to 4-0 as a team, becoming the first European pairing to win all four matches. Fleetwood also became the first rookie to claim four points from his first four matches in Ryder Cup history. On Saturday, they downed Woods and Reed in morning four-balls, 4 and 3, and Woods and Bryson DeChambeau in afternoon foursomes, 5 and 4. “They never missed a putt inside 10-12 feet,” Woods said. “That's hard to do.”

In short, the Americans are fortunate to be down by only four points, thanks to two victories Saturday from Spieth and Thomas.
“Spieth and Thomas, both in the fourth match, getting a point, held us in there strong and gave us at least an opportunity tomorrow to do something special,” Furyk said.

A comeback is highly improbable, but just like the saying that the Masters doesn't start until the back nine on Sunday, history suggests the Ryder Cup is still up for grabs until the 12 singles matches are settled.

In 1999, Justin Leonard holed a 45-foot uphill birdie putt on the 17th green to rally from 4 down with seven holes to play in one of the greatest comebacks in all of sports. It was an unforgettable moment, and it moved Ben Crenshaw, that big believer in fate, to drop to his knees and kiss the green.

When asked if there was anything that he attributed to the 2012 Miracle at Medinah, Bjorn smiled and said, “Yeah, but I'm not going to share it with you until tomorrow.”

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak