Right about the time it was all as good as over, when the US fans at Whistling Straits were jeering the loudest, the wiseacres on social media were explaining where Europe had got it all wrong, just when your thumb was hovering over the TV remote, that was when it happened.
Europe, already 6-2 down, were trailing in two of the Saturday morning foursome matches and all-square in the third. Their alpha pair, Sergio García and Jon Rahm, who had won the team’s only full point on the first day, had lost four of their first five holes on the second. It was not that they were playing so very badly, just that the USA pair of Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger were playing that much better.
García and Rahm had clawed their way back by winning the 6th and 8th, so perhaps the balance of the match was beginning to shift.
And then it did. Dramatically. At the par-four 9th, Koepka hit his second sweetly on to the green, 20ft shy of the hole, Rahm, playing from the rough 140 yards out, left his approach 40ft short on the front right of the fairway. A chance, then, for the USA pair to go back to two-up. García settled himself over the ball, took a lazy-looking little swing, and chipped the ball, one, two, three bounces and a little trickle, in for a birdie. “Vamos!” he shouted. “Vamos! Vamos!”
Berger missed and for the first time since the first green the match was all-square.
It was the turning point in one of the great Ryder Cup matches. The last time Europe won a match from that position was in 1987, when Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo beat Larry Mize and Lanny Wadkins. It was also Garcia’s 24th Ryder Cup win, which beat Faldo’s all-time record.
For a time, it looked like it may be a turning point for Europe because behind them, Viktor Hovland and Bernd Wiesberger were leading their match by two and Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick by one. But it was not to be.
That partnership between García and Rahm is about the only part of Pádraig Harrington’s team that worked like it was supposed to in the first three sessions. There is an irony in that. For years, it was an open secret Harrington and García could not stand each other.
Their long-running row started at the Seve Trophy in 2003 and worsened after Harrington’s victories at the 2007 Open, when he beat García in a play-off, and the 2008 PGA, when García blew a lead in the stretch. They finally put it behind them at Rory McIlroy’s wedding in 2017.
When Harrington picked García as one of his three wildcards, along with Ian Poulter and Shane Lowry, he called him “the heart of the team”.
It is true that without him, they would be dead already. Harrington leant on García’s partnership with Rahm when he picked them as his lead-off pair on Friday and again on Saturday, when the USA captain, Steve Stricker, shuffled his order and set Berger and Koepka up against them, thinking, rightly, that Koepka was one player who would not be remotely fazed by the prospect of playing against Rahm, the world No 1.
In those early moments, it looked like Stricker had called it right. The USA pair were brilliant through the first three holes, which they covered in back-to-back-to-back birdies, and whatever small hopes the European fans had carried into the second day had started to evaporate away like the mist disappearing under the early-morning sun.
García and Rahm got a lucky break when they won the 4th after García’s wayward approach bounced off a knoll on to the fairway, but gave what they had gained when Rahm’s approach went into the water on the 5th.
García said the match started to turn on the 6th, which the Europeans won after he hit a brilliant approach, and the 7th, which was halved after Berger missed from 5ft. Then came that chip-in on the 9th, and when Koepka missed a par putt from 10ft on the 13th, Europe were two up.
Koepka is too good to let them rip the match from him like that, but he seemed to be thrown by his blow-up on the 15th when he and Berger started squabbling with the two match officials over whether or not Koepka could get free relief from a lie in some fescue close by a drain. García could not resist getting involved and spat out a mouthful of water because he was so amused by one of Koepka’s comebacks. He looked like he was enjoying the mischief.
In the afternoon, García and Rahm were at it again in the fourballs. They beat Koepka and Jordan Spieth this time. Harrington must wish he’d played the pair in all four rounds, instead of sitting García out on Friday afternoon. By the time the day was over, Europe were so far back that all the hope that swelled in the moments after García had made that chip in had gone again, a fleeting glimpse of bright blue promise before the gloom settled over the European team again. Beating Faldo’s record won’t mean much to him, you guess, unless the team can turn it around. That feels a distant prospect, but you can be sure he’ll keep fighting anyway.