A Patch Visit to the Ryder Cup 2012

Some thoughts on the stunning Sunday European comeback and reflections on a visit to Medinah Country Club, the Chicagoland host of the major tournament.

Justin Rose appears to like Chicagoland golf courses. Specifically, he appears to like long birdies on the 17th greens of Rees Jones-remodeled Chicagoland golf courses on Sunday afternoons.

Even more specifically, he seems to like crushing my dreams with long birdies on the 17th greens of Rees Jones-remodeled Chicagoland golf courses on Sunday afternoons.

There were many daggers that doomed the United States team to a painful, historic Ryder Cup collapse as they somehow threw away a four-point lead at Medinah on Sunday. Adopted Chicagoan Luke Donald, playing for his British homeland, gritted out an impressive win over Bubba Watson for early momentum. Burgeoning choke artist Jim Furyk handed his match to Sergio Garcia with two bunkers and a three-putt; shades of his U.S. Open meltdown. And had Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods been less hapless all weekend…

But if there was a single defining moment in Europe’s Sunday smash, it was Rose on the par-3 17th, pouring in an improbable 35-foot birdie putt to even up his match with Phil Mickelson. Lefty could only smile ruefully, then watch as Rose birdied 18 as well to steal another critical point away from the Stars and Stripes.

(And perhaps somewhere, watching, Rees Jones too smiled, imagining that he might have intentionally contoured that green to damn Mickelson, who, to put it mildly, is not his biggest fan.)

It was eerily similar to the last time Rose competed in Chicagoland—and the last time I was at a golf tournament. At the 2011 BMW Championship at Cog Hill, on Sunday, as I cheered for John Senden’s valiant comeback charge, Rose stepped up to the fringe of the par-4 17th and calmly dunked a chip for birdie to stop Senden’s bid cold.

Those Jones-remodeled Chicagoland 17ths. Oh, man, Justin.

I wasn’t at the Ryder Cup on Sunday, just watching from home. But like a vast swarm of Chicagoland golfers and golf fans, I did get out for a day: Thursday, the last practice day before competition started.

Practice days are different from competition days at golf tournaments. Players are looser and loose-lipped. They sign autographs walking between holes, crack jokes with fans, try near-impossible shots. Fans can (and do) snap oodles of camera-phone snapshots. What is lost in intensity of competition is made up for in relaxed fun.

Unfortunately, the Ryder Cup is different from other tournaments, and my going on Thursday was a mistake. With only six groups of players on the course, entire crowds were relegated to four or five holes at most, leaving the rest of the course deserted and dull—and spectators on the active holes craning necks for even poor views of the players.

But it was a tremendous experience just to walk the grounds of Medinah—where an average schmuck like yours truly may not tread without a member invitation—with its towering, mosque-like clubhouse, crisp fairways, pool-table greens and perfectly even alabaster bunkers. One bored volunteer marshal on an empty hole kindly let me run a hand through one of the traps—the sand looked and felt as if imported from a Corona commercial.

I like to say the greatest beauty of golf is how it is the rare game played against the very land, played against and inside a craftsman’s work of art, where every hole in the world is a unique personality to challenge. Adventuring around the grounds of Medinah—even with its rough clipped oddly close and worn into hard-pack by thousands of spectators—was a chance to step into a living idyll deemed good enough for the best players in the world and just be enveloped in its Illinois-green gorgeousness.

And it was still a chance to see 24 of those best players hit mind-boggling shots. I saw Rory McIlroy outdrive his teammates a few times, watched Tiger practice bunker shots and putts, noticed that Keegan Bradley is a lot taller than I’d imagined, jeered under my breath at the long-suffering Sergio (but no longer) as one tee shot found a watery grave, called out hellos at entertaining supporting coaches like Sir Nick Faldo and Miguel Angel Jimenez—oh, and nearly got killed by Phil Mickelson.

Yes, not ten minutes after I’d walked onto Medinah’s grounds to park myself alongside the left side of the long par-5 14th’s fairway, Phil sliced a drive way left that missed me by just a few feet, landing and bouncing deep, deep into the trees along the rock-hard ground. As the crowd gathered around the ball, I was one of the first: a coveted spot to stand right behind the player as he hits.

Truth be told, at that moment, I’d rather it had been Rory or Keegan or even Nicholas Colsaerts. While I respect Lefty as one of the all-time greats—how could you watch this and not?—I’ve soured on him lately for his infuriating habit of delivering a never-ending stream of unsolicited negative comments about half the courses he plays, often for strange reasons (“the course is fine for us, but too hard for average Joes,” to paraphrase—what?).

But as Mickelson walked up to his absurd mishit, he greeted the crowd with a friendly, self-deprecating “hey, guys!” and as a couple hundred phones jostled for position, Lefty’s famously devoted caddy, Jim “Bones” Mackay, quipped, “absolutely no photos, people!” (Had it been one day later, this would have been true—here it was absurd and got a huge laugh.) It completely won me over.

Then Lefty grabbed a hybrid and somehow slashed his ball off the dirt 230 yards through the tiniest little hole in the trees, into a greenside bunker—pin-high in two shots on a 600+ yard hole after what looked like disaster.

It was worth going to see that one shot alone. It counted for nothing, but it was still the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen on a golf course.

And the rest of the weekend had nearly as many stunning moments. The U.S.A. may have lost this Ryder Cup, but the game of golf won. The Europeans dedicated their win to the recently-late Seve Ballesteros, Europe’s ultimate Ryder Cup hero, and the emotion was palpable. It was a brilliantly exciting tournament, devastating for the losers and exultant for the victors. It was exactly what great golf should be.

Mission accomplished, Medinah and Chicagoland.

Onwards to Scotland in 2014!

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