Amid all the debate about ‘Ryder Cup – No Ryder Cup’ and “Ryder Cup yes, but without fans’ until a final decision was reached, my thoughts turned to Hazeltine 2016, the most recent staging of this event in the USA.
The Yanks were licking their chops at the prospect of finally knocking the rampant Europeans off their perch as winners in 2010 at Celtic Manor, 2012 – The Miracle of Medinah – and 2014 at Gleneagles.
Hazeltine, to an extent, was make or break for the USA. They could not bear the prospect of another defeat, especially on home soil. Previous defeats had exposed cracks in the approach and performance of the men who represented the Stars and Stripes.
The character of their players and their team ethic had been questioned, but this turned on its head when Phil Mickelson put the proverbial boot into his 2014 captain, the golfing legend that was and still is, Tom Watson.
Some US observers wondered if the Ryder Cup really was worth the effort, given that it seemed to matter so much more to the Europeans.
Davis Love III had been given a second chance at leading the American team into battle four years after seeing a potentially glorious victory on the Saturday turn to a hammer-blow defeat by Sunday evening at Medinah in 2012.
No stone was left unturned by Love and his backroom men, and by the USGA to make sure that Team America was primed for success this time.
Personally, just getting to attend Hazeltine as a member of the media, had an added thrill.
During the Seventies and into the Eighties and beyond, buying golf magazines and reading about the thrilling tales of the greats, three US Open venues made a particularly strong impression on me – Oakmont, Baltusrol, and Hazeltine.
Oakmont, renowned as so tough, so daunting, struck a chord in the consciousness with the amazing performance of Johnny Miller shooting a record 63 in the fourth round en route to his US Open win there in 1973.
Baltusrol in 1980 belonged to the great Jack Nicklaus, winning his fourth US Open and his 16th Major title, while Hazeltine National featured the 1970 breakthrough victory of Tony Jacklin in the US Open.
I was blessed to eventually attend each of those halcyon courses, Oakmont for the 2016 US Open where Shane Lowry came so close to victory, and Baltusrol the same year for the US PGA Championship won by Jimmy Walker.
But Hazeltine, 2017, Ryder Cup week….well that was more than a bit special.
We had chauvinistic patriotism, over-the-top comments to European players, loud cheers for European missed putts, but above all, we had a marvellously intense, dramatic sporting contest as Rory McIlroy & Co took everything thrown at them and fought as hard as they could for themselves, for the team, and for skipper Darren Clarke.
The Ryder Cup is brilliant television but being there in the middle of it all when America is the home team takes the meaning and relevance of this biennial fixture to a new level.
The fanatical roars, the chants “U-S-A, U-S-A” and the American ‘anthem’ “I believe that we will win, I believe that we will win” created an atmosphere of excitement that occasionally strayed beyond the boundaries of home team fervour.
Rory McIlroy was a prime target for the US galleries, all the more so on the Saturday morning prior to his teeing off in the foursomes.
“Sweet Caroline” they sang. Then they chanted “Wozniacki, Wozniacki” which were unsubtle reminders to the European talisman about the engagement he broke off to the Danish tennis star some years ago just as the wedding invitations were about to be sent out.
If they thought they were getting under McIlroy’s skin, big mistake.
He teed off. They again chanted “Wozniacki”. He stared them down as he walked.
No way was the four time major champion going to be intimidated, not even in the crucible that is always a testing environment for the visiting side.
His Ryder cup had begun the day before with a loss in foursomes on Friday when he and playing partner Andy Sullivan blew a two hole lead with four holes to play, and lost 1up to Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler.
McIlroy made amends on Friday afternoon when paired with Belgium’s Thomas Pieters against Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar in the fourballs.
Did he enjoy it? Oh yeah, baby, as the Northern Irishman showed when throwing right hooks and uppercuts at the air every time he or Pieters holed an important putt.
McIlroy’s motivation was spurred on by defiance. The man was seeing red, American red, all around him on the scoreboards and in the galleries. This just served to keep him pumped up and refusing to countenance defeat, despite a Johnson/Kuchar rally that turned a 4up lead to 2up with three to play.
Who would blink first? Turned out it was Johnson who buckled on the par-5 16th, sending his ball into water.
McIlroy played an immaculate shot to the heart of the green, and his passion poured out as the winning point was sealed by he and Pieters for a 3&2 win.
In the midst of the fervour, it appeared that a cold part of McIlroy’s brain reserved a little something extra for Johnson.
No handshake. No ‘we’ve fought the good fight, now let’s be friends.’ It didn’t look like DJ was going to be on McIlroy’s Christmas card list. That might have had something to do with earlier in the week, when Johnson gate crashed the Europeans’ practice putting session.
What a bizarre moment. I had looked on in surprise as DJ strode purposefully onto the green, dropped a few balls, and started putting at the very hole to which McIlroy was playing long putts under the watchful eye of putting guru Phil Kenyon. At the time, the USA team was scheduled to be either on the course, or at the practice range.
There was also another putting facility available, well away from the one beside the clubhouse which Clarke’s team were using, but Johnson, whether by design, ignorance, or calculated provocation, opted to do a few minutes putting on McIlroy’s and Europe’s territory.
McIlroy could have been excused for shunning the US Open champion at the moment he and Pieters won, although he said afterwards he just got caught up in the moment, and that he would sent a text of apology to AJ, Dustin’s brother and caddie. No mention of DJ.
This was the spiky side of the Cup. Edgy, aggressive, uber-competitive. With 50,000 fans out to enjoy themselves at European expense, it’s no wonder the exchanges from the galleries went beyond the boundaries, as Danny Willett discovered.
Poor Willett. Whatever chance he had of focusing 100 percent on living up to his reputation as a Masters champion on the first day of his Ryder Cup debut went out the window when his brother Pete brutally insulted all USA golf fans in a magazine article.
Danny did his best to limit the damage. Darren Clarke ditto.
Apologies were offered. Reminders that Danny is not his brother’s keeper and all that, but inevitably, Willett had to cope with varying levels of abuse when he made his first appearance in the Friday fourballs, some of it pretty toxic.
It’s always tough out there in a Ryder Cup arena. It can be nasty. McIlroy reckoned the atmosphere at Hazeltine National had been more hostile than Medinah in 2012 – and the Chicago sports fans are not known to be blushing violets.
“It’s a hostile environment that the people out there don’t want you to hole a putt.
“They don’t want you to hit a good shot. I think that when you do hole a putt or hit a good shot, it just makes it that much more satisfying,” said McIlroy.
Within the camp, Darren Clarke’s ‘shoulder to shoulder’ mantra came to the fore at the end of Friday when Europe had recovered from 4-0 down in the foursomes to only a two point deficit at 5-3 by Friday evening.
Away from the madding crowds, a loud chant could be heard from the European locker room. “Danny Willett, there’s only one Danny Willett.”
The Europeans were united in their stubborn refusal to be pushed around by anybody on or off the course that week-end.
McIlroy and Pieters typified the fighting spirit of the away team in that Saturday morning foursomes contest against Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson, and they needed every ounce of their dogged spirit to keep the Americans at bay. Three-up after five, the Europeans were hauled back to one-up a couple of times, but a missed par putt by Fowler on the 14th left them three-up with four to play.
Then came the turning point on 15 when Pieters rolled a breaking right-to-left seven foot putt to push on to dormie three.
One last birdie on 16 ensured a 4&2 win and the first point of day for Europe.
“Personally and for the team I’m delighted,” said McIlroy.
The European talisman was not so delighted to get some genuinely nasty abuse from an American fan in the Saturday fourballs during his and Pieters’ match against DJ and Brooks Koepka.
McIlroy was so incensed that he waded into the crowd, pointed the guy out to the security staff and had him ejected. Despite that upset, the Ulsterman and the Belgian went on to record the only European win of that session.
Sunday, blessed Sunday. America leading 9.5 to 6.5. All to play for in the singles and US supporters were at fever pitch from the start.
The McIlroy-Patrick Reed match was a truly titanic struggle which ended in a win for the rambunctious American, thus setting the tone for a disappointing finish to European hopes of yet another victory.
At the close of play, Europe had been hosed by 7.5 to 4.5 on the day, and lost overall 17-11. Davis Love and his merry men had finally dethroned the European kings of the Ryder Cup in front of their countrymen and women.
A great victory for the USA and their exultant hordes of supporters, as was evident by the celebrations when the last putt dropped.
However, two years later, it was business as usual when Thomas Bjorn and his merry men got their revenge at Le Golf National.
Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we now have to wait until 2021 to see how the Americans can respond to their most recent defeat.
There was no other rational choice to be made, but hopefully Whistling Straits 2021 can match Hazeltine 2016 for the red-blooded atmospherics that make the Ryder Cup such a fascinating contest.