European team captain Jose Maria Olazabal holds his head down on the 17th hole during a singles match at the Ryder Cup PGA golf tournament Sunday.
MEDINAH, Ill. — Jose Maria Olazabal squeezed his eyes shut as they filled with tears, overwhelmed and overjoyed that the Ryder Cup still belongs to Europe.
His players wore the image of Seve Ballesteros on their sleeves and played their hearts out Sunday at Medinah, filling the scoreboard with European blue as they chipped away at a four-point deficit until completing a comeback even more remarkable than what the Americans did to them at Brookline in 1999.
This one was on the road, where Europe didn't have the advantage of a flag-waving crowd carrying them along. All they had was a message from their captain to "play your socks off," and the spirit of another Spaniard whose name didn't need to be mentioned in the closing ceremony.
"Seve, Seve, Seve," the crowd chanted when Olazabal bowed his head to compose himself.
"I'm pretty sure he's very happy where he is today," Olazabal said.
The Americans were simply stunned.
Three times they came to the 17th hole with a chance to win a match, only for Europe to deliver the key shots that win the Ryder Cup. Ian Poulter won the last two holes, and so did Justin Rose, a birdie-birdie finish to beat Phil Mickelson. Sergio Garcia won the last two holes with pars to beat Jim Furyk.
Even at the very end, this Ryder Cup could have gone either way until Martin Kaymer of Germany stepped forward to erase another bad memory. He stood over a 6-foot par putt that he needed to make to assure Europe would keep the trophy. If he missed, Tiger Woods was in the fairway behind him, ready to take the final point the Americans needed.
Kaymer poured it in to beat Stricker, and the celebration was on.
"What you did out there today was outstanding," Olazabal said. "You believed, and you delivered. And I'm very proud that you have kept Europe's hand on this Ryder Cup. All men die, but not all men live. And you made me feel alive again this week."
He hugged all 12 players, saving the longest embrace for Westwood, the only European who played on the 1997 team with Ballesteros as the captain.
Woods missed a 3½-foot par putt on the 18th hole, and then conceded a par to Francesco Molinari of about that length to halve their match. That extra half-point made it a clear-cut win for Europe, 14½-13½. Woods and Stricker, the anchors in the lineup, didn't win a single match at Medinah.
"This one is for all of Europe," Olazabal said. "Seve will always be present with this team. He was a big factor for this event for the European side, and last night when we were having that meeting, I think the boys understood that believing was the most important thing. And I think they did."
Ian Poulter was the first to embrace Olazabal, which was only fitting.
It was Poulter who gave Europe hope Saturday evening when he made five straight birdies to turn a loss into a win and swing momentum in Europe's favor. Poulter was up to his fist-pumping, eye-bulging tricks again on the final day, winning the last two holes in his match against U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson.
And he had plenty of help. Europe's top five players in the lineup all won, including Rory McIlroy, who was lucky to be playing.
McIlroy thought his match was at 12:25 p.m. — it was listed in Eastern time, not Central — and needed a police escort to get to the course with 10 minutes to spare. Then, he came up with key birdies to hand Keegan Bradley his first loss of the week.
The biggest match might have belonged to Rose. He was on the verge of losing to Mickelson when Rose holed a 12-foot par putt to halve the 16th, made a 35-foot birdie putt from the back of the 17th green to win the hole, and then closed out Mickelson with a 12-foot birdie on the last hole.
Six of the 12 matches went to the 18th hole on Sunday. The Americans won only one of them.
The Americans also rallied from a four-point deficit to win in 1999 at Brookline. This was different, though. The Americans won big in those early matches. At Medinah, so many of them could have gone either way.
"Today was certainly not what we expect," U.S. captain Davis Love III said.
Europe now has won seven of the last nine Ryder Cups, and even more remarkable about this comeback is that they did it on the road.
Love became the first U.S. captain to sit every player at least once before Sunday, wanting them to be fresh for the decisive day. Instead, the Americans faltered at the end — especially Furyk and Stricker, two of his captain's picks.
"The plan worked the first two days," he said. "It just didn't work today."
The only U.S. points came from Dustin Johnson, who went 3-0 in this Ryder Cup, Zach Johnson and unheralded Jason Dufner.
"We're all kind of stunned," Love said. "We know what it feels like now from the '99 Ryder Cup. It's a little bit shocking. We were playing so well, we figured it didn't matter how we sent them out there. We got a couple of matches flipped there in the middle that cost us."
Love thought all along the Ryder Cup would be decided in the ninth match by Dufner. It was most appropriate that Europe won the cup thanks to Kaymer.
Kaymer gave German golf some redemption from Kiawah Island in 1991, when countryman Bernhard Langer missed a par putt from about the same length that allowed the Americans to win.
"It's a feeling I never had before," Kaymer said. "On Friday, I sat down with Bernhard and talked a little bit about the Ryder Cup because my attitude was not the right one. But now I know how important the Ryder Cup is."
It means everything to Europe, and it showed.
They didn't have a home crowd to rally them, relying instead on the silence.
"Last time it was done, it was the American team in America," Lee Westwood said after closing out Matt Kuchar in 16 holes. "This would be against all odds. This would be the greatest comeback in the Ryder Cup — ever."
And it was a collapse the Americans won't soon forget. Just 24 hours earlier, they had a 10-4 lead with two team matches still on the course — they were ahead in one of them, while Woods and Stricker were closing in on the other. It's hard to believe they would only win 3½ points the rest of the way.
Europe came out fast, and for McIlroy, that started at his hotel.
He was leisurely heading out of the hotel — thinking that his tee time was an hour later than it was — when he got a frantic call to tell him his match was in 25 minutes. McIlroy was lucky to run into the police, who helped him get to Medinah with enough time to change his shoes, take a few putts and head to the tee box.
He never trailed in his match, making two straight birdies late to knock off Bradley.
"It's my own fault," McIlroy said. "If I let down these 11 other boys and vice captains and captains this week, I would never forgive myself. I'm just obviously happy to get the point and help the cause out a little bit today."
Everyone pitched in.
Luke Donald, who makes Chicago his home and had a small share of gallery support, overwhelmed Bubba Watson despite being some 50 yards behind him off the tee. Paul Lawrie, returning to the Ryder Cup after a 13-year absence, had the shortest match of the day against FedEx Cup champion Brandt Snedeker. Poulter outlasted Simpson when the U.S. Open champion hit into a bunker on the 17th and made bogey, and then hit well long on the 18th when he needed a birdie to halve the match.
Jack Nicklaus first suggested in 1977 that all of Europe be included in the Ryder Cup, which brought the great Ballesteros into the matches. He was determined to prove that Europeans were equal to the Americans, and they have shown to be every bit of that over the last three decades.