Just when it seemed that a golden summer of sport was over and its immortal feats had been consigned to history, Europe's golfers produced one of the highlights of an astonishing year on Sunday by retaining the Ryder Cup with a comeback of epic proportions against the United States.
Trailing 10-6 after two days' play, they had looked ready to be embalmed and shipped home. But in the face of what had promised to be a victory parade by the home team, José María Olazábal's dozen warriors produced a performance of relentless intent, crushing one young giant after another as they made their increasingly euphoric way to victory by 14½ points to 13½, the last half-point coming when, with the final act of the contest, a crestfallen Tiger Woods sportingly conceded Francesco Molinari's 4ft putt on the 18th green.
In the annals of a competition whose history stretches back to 1927, the 39th edition will occupy a special place for its drama and its wonderful setting. Nothing could have more fittingly honoured the memory of Seve Ballesteros, who died in May of last year, than the fighting spirit shown by players whose white shirtsleeves on Sunday were adorned by the image of his distinctive silhouette.
The outcome was in the balance until the final moments, but Europe had long since restored every ounce of the pride so badly damaged by their flaccid performances of the opening days. It will probably remain a mystery why they did not come to life until late on Saturday night, when a birdie by Rory McIlroy on the 13th hole of the day's last fourball match inspired Ian Poulter to finish the day with a run of five birdies.
After that, they started to believe that a miracle was possible. "It was amazing to see the spirit in that team room on Saturday night," Poulter said. "It just changed. We just felt that there was a little glimmer of hope."
The captain of the US team had asked the home fans to turn up wearing something red on Sunday, and they responded in their thousands, but it was Europe's golfers who turned 56 acres of Illinois into a bloodbath as they reversed the events at Brookline in 1999, when the Americans came back from a similar position on the final day. The difference was that Europe's comeback kids were on enemy territory, facing a bunch of confident – perhaps in some cases overconfident – opponents and a raucous crowd.
At Brookline, George W Bush – then the governor of Texas – had addressed the team on the eve of the final battle, reading a letter written by a soldier during the siege of the Alamo. Now an ex-president, Bush spoke to the team at Medinah on Saturday night, but whatever he said did not have the same impact. One by one, the strong young men of Love's team toppled. The first to fall was Bubba Watson, the current US Masters champion, cut down by Luke Donald in a nerve-racking climax on the 17th green. "If it had gone to 18, I'd don't know what I'd have done," Donald said.
Then came Brandt Snedeker, last week's winner of a cool $10m in the FedEx Cup, astonishingly beaten by Paul Lawrie, whose last great moment came at Carnoustie before the turn of the millennium. That victory in the 1999 Open gave Lawrie a ticket to his only previous Ryder Cup, and the 43-year-old Scot was so overcome bySunday's success that he was unable to speak as he left the 15th green in triumph.
Keegan Bradley, last year's PGA championship winner and the outstanding player of the first two days at Medinah, was the next to fall, the axe wielded by Rory McIlroy, who had needed a police car to get him to the first tee just in time for his 11.25am appointment with the starter. He had looked at his phone and seen that he was due on the course at 12.25, without realising that the information was given in East Coast time, an hour ahead. A call from the team manager had alerted him. "If I'd let down these 11 other boys and the captain and vice-captains, I'd never have forgiven myself," he said.
Webb Simpson is the reigning US Open champion, and he looked a likely winner against Poulter until the Englishman counterattacked on the back nine and took the lead for the first time on the penultimate hole, rubbing it in with a birdie at the 18th.
That victory had brought Europe level with the US at 10-all. And so it went on. The first American success came next, when Dustin Johnson overcame Nicolas Colsaerts, the hero of Friday afternoon, but Justin Rose was soon snatching victory at the last gasp from Phil Mickelson, the darling of the home crowd. Graeme McDowell, who won the hole that gave Europe victory at Celtic Manor two years ago, lost to Zach Johnson, and then it was down to the men whose underperformance during the first two days had led to their lowly positioning in Olazábal's front-loaded order of play for the singles.
Lee Westwood, a Ryder Cup stalwart who had lost two of his three matches on Friday and Saturday, was never headed by Matt Kuchar and won on the 16th with a 12-inch putt which Kuchar refused to concede. "I don't blame him for not giving it to me," the normally imperturbable Westwood said. "I was shaking like a leaf."
Sergio García beat Jim Furyk, the deadpan Jason Dufner accounted for Peter Hanson to level the match again at 13-all, and then it was down to Martin Kaymer and Molinari, with not a point won between them in the first two days. Their opponents were Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, partners in foursomes and fourball matches, who had played three and lost three and now, in a convulsive final act, were unable to reverse a blue tide that had become a flood.
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image: © Keith Allison