This isn’t the Country Club outside Boston 15 years ago where the Americans made history by rallying from a 10-6 deficit to win the Ryder Cup.
This isn’t Medinah either, where the Europeans pulled off the same kind of rally to win a Ryder Cup that still resonates two years later.
This is Gleneagles in the heart of Scotland, a lush resort surrounded by the Ochill Hills, big, green and ancient. They’re nothing compared to the hill now facing captain Tom Watson’s team.
What looked and felt so promising for the Americans after a spellbinding morning session fell apart Saturday afternoon, leaving the Europeans with a 10-6 advantage, needing just four points from 12 Sunday singles matches to retain the Cup for the eighth time in 10 events.
It isn’t over but the champagne is being shaken.
“You might think it’s a given the Europeans are going to win. I sure as hell don’t,” Watson said Saturday evening.
Safe to say Watson is in the minority.
Unless the Americans pull off a shocking comeback – they are sending out Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler in the first three singles matches – the postmortem might focus as much on Watson’s decisions as captain as on the players.
He was criticized Friday for sitting Reed and Spieth after their blowout win in the first session and he accepted the second-guessing, acknowledging he’d done a bit of it himself.
There were more questions Saturday when Watson elected to keep Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley on the sidelines all day. Mickelson, 44 and arthritic, wasn’t expected to play both Saturday sessions but no one thought he’d spend his day carrying a seat cushion while he watched his teammates play.
Mickelson and Bradley came to Gleneagles unbeaten in Ryder Cup play together and knocked off Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy in four-ball play Friday morning. They lost Friday afternoon but figured to be a critical element in the American game plan Saturday. Or so it seemed.
“You can question my decisions on that. That’s fine,” Watson said. “I get back to the point, I made the best decisions I possibly could at the time I was making the decisions with the help of my vice captains and my guts. That’s what they brought me in as the captain for.”
Watson said he could see Mickelson’s fatigue when they had dinner together Friday night. He could see something similar in Jimmy Walker Saturday afternoon when he was playing his fourth match in two days.
In retrospect, Watson said, he didn’t fully appreciate the fatigue factor. He might have limited Mickelson to one match on Friday so he could play again on Saturday.
But when Mickelson tried – more than once – to convince Watson he was good to go Saturday, the captain stuck with his decision.
“They were disappointed. They wanted to play. I like that in a player. I like the push-back that I got from them,” Watson said.
Still, the notion of sitting two guys whose Ryder Cup record together is 4-1 and who thrive on each other’s amped-up styles was a blunder.
The Americans trailed by just one point after the Saturday morning session, which produced 69 birdies and one eagle in four matches. But the Europeans did what they’ve done so often – dominate Saturday afternoon – to seize control.
Over two foursomes sessions, the Europeans went 6-0-2. The Americans haven’t won a Saturday afternoon foursomes session since Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus were on the 1981 Ryder Cup team.
“Do we play well enough to win? And obviously we haven’t in the last two Ryder Cups,” Watson said. “It’s up to the players. It’s up for the actors to go out there and act. They haven’t acted well enough to get that standing ovation at the end in the last two Ryder Cups.”
Through two chilly, windblown days, the Americans may have found the core of future Ryder Cup teams in Spieth, Reed and Rickie Fowler, though Fowler has never won a Ryder Cup match and he faces McIlroy today.
The singles can change everything. To counter the obvious U.S. intention of getting early victories, the Europeans stacked Graeme McDowell, Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose in the first four singles matches.
McIlroy is the best player in the world and Rose has played like he is for two days at Gleneagles.
“The score is 10-6 and we know it’s possible,” Rose said. “It’s basically going to be come out with good enthusiasm, respect your opponents, obviously respect what can happen and understand the finish line is nowhere near yet.”
Just imagine how far away it is for the Americans.