Ryder Cup regained by Europe in muddy marathon

In a rain delayed golf tournament that captivated the crowds, Colin Montgomerie declares: 'Wales delivered'

Colin Montgomerie, Europe's Ryder Cup captain, strode back along the 18th fairway with a look that said life could be no better than this. His team's slender victory over the USA, in a muddy marathon that extended to a fourth day for the first time in 83 years, was celebrated by a 35,000 crowd who would never have guessed Mondays could be such fun.

The throng marched with him because this was also a triumph for spectator perseverance. After the rain, the muck and the mist at Celtic Manor, in the Usk valley near Newport, golf fans who had probably phoned through all sorts of phoney excuses to their employers invaded the 17th green, where Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell won his match over America's Hunter Mahan to secure Europe's victory by 14 and a half to 13 and a half points, despite the USA winning the final session 7-5.

"The world was watching and Wales delivered. We thank every fan this week for their fairness and their appreciation of the game," Montgomerie said at a closing ceremony rich in sentimentality and footballesque chanting. Europe had been inspired, Montgomerie said, by a big picture in the team-room of Seve Ballesteros, winning captain and eight-time Ryder Cup player, who is recovering from a brain tumour.

This biennial transatlantic clash runs on emotion: most of it supplied by Europe, for whom the key players in the singles matches were Spain's 46-year-old Miguel Angel Jiménez, who sports a pot-belly, ponytail and cigar – even when stretching – England's Luke Donald and Ian Poulter, and McDowell, the new US Open champion and an inspired choice by Montgomerie to anchor the Europeans as last man out.

But mostly it was a triumph for the captain, who has measured out his life in Ryder Cups and is now a folk hero of the fairways. "This is one of the finest moments of my golf career. No, hang on, this is the greatest moment of my golf career," Montgomerie said. "I asked them to play with their hearts and with passion – and by God they did. They are the finest team I will ever captain."

Europe, as a sports team, really ought not to work. The cultures are too diverse, the forcing together under an EU flag a little too contrived. Yet the players under Montgomerie's charismatic leadership frame themselves as eternal underdogs, facing down the richer US PGA Tour. They have won six of the last eight runnings of this event and this season Europeans have captured two of the golf's four major titles, Darren Clarke, one of Montgomerie's vice-captains, spoke of a "new breed", led by his fellow Northern Irishman, the debutante Rory McIlroy, 21, who had called the cup "an exhibition" before being taught its special charm. The Ryder Cup's appeal is indestructible. Friday's programme was wrecked by rain and America's rainproof gear leaked. When US officials were spotted queueing with spectators to buy water-resistant clothing many diagnosed a very British farce.

Frustration found its outlet in the scheduling of the event in October, in Wales, which bears the brunt of Atlantic fronts. America's Fed Ex Cup – a pork barrel free-for-all for the world's best players – had taken precedence, forcing the Ryder Cup back deep into autumn. The viability of the event itself was questioned. Was it a hyped ceremonial afterthought to the real business of making money or the spiritual heartbeat of golf?

Sunday morning's play, too, was wiped out by the weather. Parts of the course were a swamp. But the crowd endured, the sun burst through for the 12 singles matches and the contest was settled on the penultimate hole when Mahan fell to McDowell. Even Tiger Woods, golf's supreme lone hunter, played well once he was freed from team responsibilities, destroying Francesco Molinari one-to-one.

Weighed down by a sense that Americans care less about it than Europe, the Ryder Cup takes its licks but always finds a way to captivate. The action rides to the rescue. The conversion of young McIlroy from sceptic to diehard was apparent as he threw his arms round his friend McDowell outside the clubhouse, and Jiménez rode back on a buggy, erect, high-fiveing his admirers.

McIlroy now knows the Ryder Cup inflicts the most intense pressure on individuals, in a team setting, because he saw McDowell come through it on the back nine holes to beat Mahan. "It's been the best week of my life," McIlroy said.

As McDowell had already won the US Open, ESPN's Jason Sobel blogged: "Should we just hand him all our apple pies and Chevrolets, too?" It may be a little drunk on its heroic self-image but the Ryder Cup never fails its congregation.

Contributor

Paul Hayward

The GuardianTramp

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