It was a cool, misty morning on the banks of the River Avon, the rain falling as softly as Irish tears beside the Liffey.
And as I ran this Sunday, I set my mind back to all the great Ryder Cups I’d watched through the years. Some won, some halved, and so many which were gloriously and frustratingly lost. Every single one of them was just as captivating and compelling as golf ever can be.
And yet in this year’s event, I felt there was something different, something intangible which I hadn’t seen before.
To be sure, the spectacle, and the atmosphere were more magnificent than ever, with both teams privileged to drink at long last from that well of Irish hospitality and welcome which flowed to the brim in County Kildare this week.
But more than that, I realised that it was our expectations which had changed.
In years gone by, we’d seen so many GB & Ireland, and then European teams falter in the Ryder Cup. The Europeans would play to their traditional strengths, in those quirky foursome and fourballs on the first two days, trying desperately to win some cushion of a lead before the inevitable final day onslaught, when the realities of the world rankings would intervene. Because in Sunday’s singles, the Americans would win, inevitably and unerringly.
Since although the Ryder Cup is a supreme team event, golf most emphatically remains a game which relies on individual strengths, right down the team.
But this year, after losing every session leading up to Sunday, it was hard to believe that Tom Lehman really could find a miracle to steal the cup back across the Atlantic. And so it proved, with the Europeans crafting an emphatic 8½ – 3½ margin yesterday afternoon, for a record-equalling result overall.
So what has happened to the world of golf, you may ask, when an American team headed by the best three players in the world, holding seventeen major championships between them, can be roundly beaten by a European team with only one major winner in José-Maria Olazábal, who last wore a green jacket seven years ago ?
But the Ryder Cup isn’t an event about the numbers of major winners on a team, nor even about the number of points scored, nor the size of individual victories and defeats.
The truth is that on this side of the Atlantic, the raw ingredients of Ryder Cup victory have rarely depended on individual reputations. The Europeans have so often looked the weaker team on paper, only to find telling and timely inspiration from a talisman or two – a Seve, a Faldo or a Monty, capable of converting their less charismatic compatriots into winners when it counts.
Just amongst the Irish whose past heroics had brought the event to the K Club this week, the golf game of an Eamonn Darcy, a Christy O’Connor, Des Smyth or a Philip Walton should never have struck fear into an American team, yet within the context of the Ryder Cup, their massive green hearts so often prevailed.
Looking back, the European wins have always relied upon such triumph over weakness, and courage in the face of superior odds. When you know that you should really lose, the effort to win is inevitably that much more heartfelt, and the fight to avoid defeat drawn from somewhere much deeper within.
It’s a mindset which has served the Europeans well, carrying them through those inevitable years of disappointment when the opposing guns were just too strong to resist. And it’s exactly that passion which promised so much more this year, when at last our line-up looked the stronger one, thanks to the progress of all our young players who had grown up since last time in Detroit.
Tom Lehman always knew he had to work hard. He brought his players to Ireland before the event, and he bonded them together to build a team. His preparation was meticulous, his tortilla chips and hamburgers were imported in bulk, and his tactics looked sound. But the one thing which clearly neither Lehman or his American chef could finally change was the appetite of his players to fight if the tide of matches turned against them.
On Saturday afternoon, that rising swell had become an Irish flood, and by the time Paul Casey holed in one on the fourteenth to close out his foursomes match alongside David Howell, the European team was already on fire. Inspired through half a hurricane, sunshine and downpours not just by the loudest home crowd cheers in the history of golf, but by their wider belief as a team.
Darren Clarke lifted both himself and his colleagues through his own battle with bereavement, with the warmth of the crowd and his best friend Lee Westwood staying right beside him every step of the way.
Woosnam’s other pairings looked less certain, and Luke Donald and Howell each surely deserved more than three outings each. But frankly, it didn’t really matter which Europeans were on the tee, since they were all going to stand up and play this week, just the same.
On Sunday, some of the gutsiest golf came from the Americans. In the second match, Stewart Cink opened with five early birdies against Sergio García. Later on, Scott Verplank emulated Casey’s ace to hammer out a win against Harrington, Tiger Woods was simply too good for Karlsson, and Chris diMarco found nearly enough birdies amongst the leprachauns to pull off an impossible comeback from five down against Westwood. But the problem was that the game was all up by then.
It was always an Irishman’s destiny to drown in Guinness and champagne at the K Club, and neither life nor death itself were ever going to change that.
So where does this leave the Ryder Cup ?
From a European perspective, our great passion for this event has only been nurtured by the soft Irish rain. Ahead lies a Kentucky rematch in 2008, and a first visit to Wales two years later. The male voice choirs and new captain Nick Faldo’s speechwriters must be tuning up their repertoires in anticipation, even now.
And what of the USA ? Tom Lehman was sporting and generous in defeat, and it was David Toms who graciously admitted that the visiting side had forged a great group, had tried of their best, and yet somehow had still fallen short.
But defeat seemed to puzzle their team yesterday, posing a much more worrying question today. Will the Americans one day lose patience with this event, one for which they now seem so oddly ill-adapted – one where no prize money changes hands ? Is pride alone enough to keep bringing them back, when lucrative sponsorship deals and fat tournament purses at home might tempt them away ?
And that is an answer on which not just the future of the Ryder Cup, but the health of the whole world game most surely depends.