Europe Couldn’t Help But Feel Blue at Hazeltine

I bought my friend, a diehard Leicester City fan, a beer a few months ago. You can probably guess why. I hadn’t seen him in a while and wanted to congratulate him on seeing his childhood team win the Premier League. Before he left, I asked him what he thought the future held for Leicester. I was thinking top four finish, maybe a good cup run, even the knockout stages of the Champions League; “I don’t support them anymore,” he smiled innocently, almost gratefully, waving down a bus. “It can only go downhill from here.”

I was horrified at first, but then began to consider. My friend’s reaction, although perhaps atypical, was just a fan’s reaction to seeing something he knew he would never see again. How do fans and sportspeople motivate themselves to go again, when they have achieved a once-in-a-lifetime piece of history? When you’ve reached so high, how do you cope with the comedown?

My favourite sporting moment that I’ve witnessed was the European team’s victory in the Ryder Cup at Medinah. Europe were 10-4 down going into the Saturday afternoon, a position not-quite-Leicester-City impossible, but still pretty damn hopeless.

I get goose bumps just thinking about that Sunday when the European team came out with the silhouette of Seve Ballesteros emblazoned on their white polo shirts. Seve, a golfing legend in his own right, had died recently after a long battle with cancer. His Ryder cup partner and best friend, Jose Maria Olazabal, was the European captain for 2012 at Medinah. No other partnership in Ryder Cup history had been as successful as theirs.

My favourite sporting moment that I’ve witnessed was the European team’s victory in the Ryder Cup at Medinah

When Martin Kaymer holed the winning putt, I knew I had watched something unique. You could pour away the bunkers and sweep up Tiger Woods because, for me, golf could never come to anything better.

Of course I watched this year’s action at Hazeltine and yes, despite my friend’s example, I got firmly on the bandwagon. 2014 had been a convincing win for Europe on their own patch; maybe, just maybe, on American soil, Medinah could be topped.

I was predictably disappointed, and yet the response elsewhere was enthusiastic. One match in particular attracted media attention throughout the competition. McIllroy vs Reed was not only praised for the level of golf on show (which was, I’ll admit, sparkling at times), but for exhibiting the kind of rivalry the sporting world demands. The Telegraph was in awe of “the highest grade of pandemonium at the eighth hole, which could go down as the most entertaining in Ryder Cup history.” Was I missing something?

There are many ways to be entertained, but the McIllroy/Reed showdown attracted the inflated promotion of a headline act that everybody knew had little in the way of supporting cast waiting in the wings. On McIllroy’s part, his antics on the eighth hole, cupping his ears and shouting “I can’t hear you” to the American fans, had a cringe-worthy over-the-top-ness to it.

The PGA of America’s twitter feed simply asked “is this real life?” I was asking myself the same question, but perhaps with less laudable implications. It felt out of character and forced from McIllroy, now considered a stolid season pro at 27 and with multiple major wins under his belt. But who could blame the Northern Irishman for trying to recreate the miracle at Medinah? Where do you go when reality falls flat, when the Olazabals and Poulters have all left town? You raid the dressing-up box and strut the stage.

And Rory wasn’t coy about the new trappings he had robed himself in for the 2016 event. “Well Poults [Poulter] wasn’t playing this time so we needed someone on the course to be doing what he does…” The Guardian captioned a picture of his swashbuckling bravado with “McIllroy can be the Europe team’s new cheerleader.” This is one of the most naturally gifted golfers ever to play the game being tipped for a role that Russell Crowe wouldn’t even shake a sword at.

Justin Rose, a team-mate of Rory’s in 2012, was a more recent ascender who struggled with his footing as he climbed down from the dizzying heights of Olympic Gold in Rio. 2 points from 5 matches is by no means an embarrassment, but when you sour a convincing US victory with complaints about pin placement being too easy on the last day, you risk embodying the pantomime villain.

Rose’s performance against Mickelson at Medinah in their Sunday singles match has deservedly gone down in Ryder Cup folklore. It’s one thing for McIllroy and Reed to fist pump and slap each other on the back with 10 holes to go and 11 team-mates left to bail you out if you fluff your lines. But Phil Mickelson’s subtle applause of Rose’s 40 foot putt on the 17th in 2012 to tie the match, a match that both competitors knew could be the nerve-shredding showcase to win or lose the cup, had a razor-sharp sincerity to it that captured the poignancy of the occasion perfectly. Rose is all too aware of how special that putt was to his career; “Looking back that was a huge step for me in my progression to major champion. After Medinah, pretty much any situation I’m in now I can tell myself I’ve done it…”

Rose portrays this as a confidence-booster in tough situations but a glimmer of the icy descent is also there; the darker realisation of what comes after standing on the summit. Having already been on the highest rollercoaster in the amusement park, preparing for Hazeltine must have been like saving up your pocket money to buy a ticket for the spinning teacups.

The Ryder Cup alone is not some bottle that can release the genie of camaraderie and commitment every time the spotlight turns on it. The Oscar-glow of 2012 simply came from the self-evident truth that it meant a huge amount to a lot of people around those Chicago fairways and not just in the Sky Sports studios. History itself can do little without the palms of the present rubbing that trophy and unleashing the desire for a shared cause.

Having already been on the highest rollercoaster in the amusement park, preparing for Hazeltine must have been like saving up your pocket money to buy a ticket for the spinning teacups.

This emotional trickledown can work wonders but, when the passion feels like a stumble from the top, the lower orders struggle to keep their feet. Danny Willett, another intrepid climber who claimed his first major this year at Augusta, was a rookie who needed to be shown by the European leadership that blue points were just as important as green jackets. This clearly didn’t happen this time around. After a poor performance, Danny could only describe his first Ryder Cup experience as “shit!” When pressed for more detail by a reporter, Danny elaborated. “Really shit!”

I’m not criticising the technical calls of Darren Clarke’s captaincy in any way, but can you imagine Olazabal’s reaction to such a comment? Willett would be dangling by the cojones outside the European locker room. On paper, this interview could be considered a real eye-opener for fans and the media, a chance to see inside the mind of a sportsman who has essentially been forced into a team event that, deep down, he has no desire to be part of (sound familiar, England football fans?). But, as a live interview, where Danny’s response prompted jeers and laughter from his team-mates, it risks putting the Ryder Cup dead in the drink as a serious fixture on any professional golfer’s calendar.

But as a spectacle? Never. Media and fan frenzy can only ever try and push a major sporting event higher and higher: there’s too much at stake in admitting that the film may not live up to the box office figures. Nobody wants to look down.

As a European fan, it’s easy to say that I’ve learnt my lesson and that I’m going to stop trying to resurrect the Ryder Cup from the long, beautiful shadow of Medinah. But Paris 2018 will be here soon. And for that Ryder Cup, I’ll be chanting on Les Blues again, even if my friend has called it a day. Because you never know…