Sunday October 14, 2012

While many of us would like to forget the painful finish from the Ryder Cup two weekends ago, the dramatic event is one that will remain fresh in Berkshire Hills head professional Josh Hillman's mind for a long time.

Hillman was at Medinah Country Club working for the PGA of America while taking in the excitement and great golf.

"The atmosphere was amazing," Hillman said. "Patriotism was alive and well. The spectators were proud to be Americans and took their pride to new levels."

Of course, there were plenty of European fans making their presence felt.

"I saw 12 men dressed up as Uncle Sam and eight Euros wearing all blue jumpsuits and Rory [McIlroy] wigs," Hillman reported.

Still, while both sides rooted their lungs out, things remained civil.

"It wasn't like a typical Yankees-Red Sox situation where people can be rude and harsh," Hillman said. "The fans supported each other and were respectful. I think that's the nature of golf."

With plenty of birdies being made, it may have seemed that Medinah wasn't all that tough. Hillman says that wasn't the case.

"The course was a bear," Hillman said. "The average player would really struggle. The shorter rough made it a little easier but the course is very long and there are a lot of uphill and downhill shots. Holes like 12 and 16 are true doglegs and are 460 and 480 yards."

And the putting surfaces were NASCAR fast.

"The greens were in perfect shape, but there are a lot of slopes, and they were cutting and rolling them after each set of matches," Hillman said.

As for Europe's heroic comeback, being on site gave Hillman a slightly different perspective than those who favor the choke theory over the Europe-was-just-better theory.

"Just about everyone on the grounds knew that the U.S. did not lose it, the Euro team went out and won it," Hillman said. "From the numbers I saw, it didn't matter who [U.S. captain] Davis Love put with who, the Euros just played that strong."

A look strictly at the numbers confirms what Hillman says about the Europeans' performance. Based on the scores posted, a different lineup wouldn't have mattered.

European captain Jose Maria Olazabal front-loaded his lineup in a move that produced results even he couldn't have imagined. His first five out -- Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Paul Lawrie -- were a combined 19 under. Love's first five -- Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley, Phil Mickelson, and Brandt Snedeker -- were a mere 2 under. Overall, the 12 Euros were 20 under, the U.S. contingent just minus-6.

In three of those first four matches, the U.S. cracked down the stretch with Simpson losing Nos. 17 and 18, Bradley losing 15 and 16 and Mickelson dropping the last two holes, though in his case credit to Rose, who birdied both.

While admitting hindsight is 20-20, I have to question sending out the unpredictable Watson in match No. 1 and -- while understanding that Love's Cup rookies had performed well -- having first-timers in three of the first five matches. All five of Europe's leadoff hitters had previously experienced the suffocating Ryder Cup singles pressure.

Of course, on Saturday afternoon, none of this looked like it would matter with the U.S. up 10-4 and looking at perhaps a seemingly insurmountable 11-5 margin.

"Everything was going great until Poulter decides to birdie the last five holes," Hillman said. "All of a sudden, everyone was asking if a comeback was coming."

But still, down 10-6 on U.S. soil? Really?

"I think the fans still firmly believed the U.S. would win," Hillman said. "We're always good in the singles, but Europe came back pretty strong in the afternoon. I don't think people realized it was going to happen until near the end."

For me, the moment of realization came when Jim Furyk stepped away from his par putt on No. 17 perhaps a half-dozen times. Considering his recent meltdowns at the U.S. Open and WGC Bridgestone, that was a terrible sign. He ended up missing the putt and the last two holes to lose to Peter Hanson in what, along with Steve Stricker's loss to Martin Kaymer, sealed the deal.

As frustrating as the loss is for U.S. fans, the Cup once again proved to be golf's most exciting and dramatic event.

"The real winner of this Ryder Cup, in my opinion, was the game of golf," Hillman said. "Everything about it was positive."

Well, almost everything.

To contact Richard Lord:
rlord@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6236.