GLENEAGLES, Scotland — Try as it might, Team USA couldn’t pull off its own miracle, having suffered the ultimate Ryder Cup indignity two years ago at Medinah in Chicago when leading 10-6 going into Sunday.
Led by its talisman Rory McIlroy — the world number one — Europe saw off a brave challenge from those in red to retain the trophy by a ultimately comfortable margin of 16½-11½.
It was the continent’s third straight victory, its sixth in the last seven and one that provoked searching questions for United States captain Tom Watson, not least from his star player Phil Mickelson.
But “Lefty” is also facing some questions after he was accused of throwing his “captain right under the bus,” by former European skipper Nick Faldo.
Watson’s European counterpart Paul McGinley will be subject to no such inquisition, universally lauded by his players and serenaded by a vibrant Scottish crowd once his triumph was rubber-stamped.
Rookie Jamie Donaldson secured the clinching point by beating Keegan Bradley, and was promptly enveloped on the 15th green by cameramen, photographers and his wife, not to mention a jubilant European team.
“I can’t really put it into words,” Donaldson, from Wales, said. “It’s unbelievable. There is nothing like it in golf. The Ryder Cup is just a total one off and it’s amazing to be a part of it.”
Before him Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell had overturned a three-hole deficit to topple rookie Jordan Spieth 2&1 while McIlroy’s 5&4 takedown of Rickie Fowler had a brutal edge to it.
“Early in the match, the trending was exactly where we wanted it to go,” Watson told reporters. “We had a lot of red scored up there. The players responded early, we just couldn’t keep it going.
“The bottom line is they kicked our butts. They were better players this week.”
Mickelson speaks out
Watson was then forced to defend his own methods during a tense press conference after thinly veiled criticism from Mickelson, the five-time major champion, who has won on just two of his ten Ryder Cup appearances.
The last of those came in 2008 and ‘Lefty’ praised the approach of then captain Paul Azinger, who he said had involved the players in his decision making process and formulated a “real game plan.”
Watson responded by saying: “(Phil) has a difference of opinion. That’s okay. My management philosophy is different than his. I had a different philosophy than Paul. I decided not to go that way.”
Mickelson’s comments drew withering criticism from former PGA Tour player and Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, who labeled the five-timer major winner as a golfer who had “corrupted the experience of the Ryder Cup.”
Chamblee added: “That was as close to a one-man mutiny as I ever seen.”
There was no such acrimony in the European press conference, Donaldson being spirited into it on the back of Thomas Bjorn, which was punctuated by the regular sound of champagne corks popping.
Asked to describe his sense of achievement, McGinley said: “Proud is the first word. I want to say as captain it has been a real honor to get these 12 players, they have all been Colossus.”
In truth, McGinley’s men had wrested the Ryder Cup decisively away from the United States on Saturday afternoon, thanks to a dominant European performance in the foursomes.
And while both camps paid lip service to the miracle possibility before taking to the fairways on Sunday, there would be no second successive seismic turnaround.
The jubilant air around Gleneagles confirmed that few in blue considered an upset feasible, 2010 U.S. Open champion McDowell roared off by a crowd that had been entertaining themselves in song long before the first ball had been addressed.
For several hours the first tee box was the epicenter of world golf, 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus and former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson — the most successful manager in the history of English soccer — both present.
And though the task was tall, the United States requiring eight-and-a-half points to pull off an unlikely victory, a few hours into the contest it led in five matches.
Heeding Watson’s call to “smoke ’em early”, Spieth raced into a three-hole lead over McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion from Northern Ireland.
Behind him, the other standout U.S. rookie, Patrick Reed, also advanced into an early lead over Sweden’s Henrik Stenson.
Hunter Mahan, who succumbed in the crucial match at the climax of the 2010 Ryder Cup, birdied four of the opening six holes to seize the initiative in his clash with Justin Rose, from England.
But as he had promised prior to the competition, four-time major winner McIlroy proved he was the fulcrum in Europe’s engine-room.
Five birdies in six holes took him five clear of Rickie Fowler, and in effect, sealed the outcome of their tussle before they had even reached the ninth hole.
For an hour or so, that lone sliver of blue on the leaderboard was engulfed by red. Slowly, the tide began to turn.
Martin Kaymer, the reigning U.S. Open champion from Germany, took advantage of a wayward opening from Bubba Watson, the two-time Masters champion.
Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter forged ahead in the early stages of their matches, while Stenson was chewing away at the lead of Reed.
But the top match was symptomatic of U.S. fortunes, as McDowell recovered from his stuttering start and stealthily set about hauling in Spieth.
Trailing by three going down the tenth, the man who had been serenaded by European fans with with a chorus of “You’ve got Big Mac, we’ve got G-Mac,” before teeing off, found his stride.
An inspired stretch of four birdies, acquired through a combination of formidable iron play and accurate putting, meant a symbolic switch from red to blue at the top of the leaderboard.
It galvanized those behind him. Rose now roared back with four straight birdies of his own and ended with half a point against Mahan.
Roars populated the course as the majority of the 40,000-strong crowd grew in energy and belief, fans glued to the big screens when there was no action to be seen in front of them.
McDowell ended Spieth’s challenge on the 17th, and though Reed won the last to see off Stenson, Kaymer’s chip-in in front of huge crowds on 16 sealed another point.
Mickelson carved out a win over home favorite Stephen Gallacher, while Matt Kuchar holed out from 160 yards on his way to a comprehensive win over Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn.
But further down the leaderboard, Donaldson had assumed complete control of his battle with Keegan Bradley, the 2011 U.S. PGA Champion.
As it became clear the Welshman was most likely to be the one to retain the trophy, crowds scampered up to the 14th green and jostled for position as Donaldson stood over his ball.
Though that one didn’t drop, but glory wasn’t far away. A pitch perfect iron shot on the next hole landed barely two feet from the cup and once Bradley got down to the green he conceded.
Following that decisive moment, Spain’s Sergio Garcia broke down on the 17th green after beating Jim Furyk, Ian Poulter and Webb Simpson halved their match, while rookie Jimmy Walker got the better of Lee Westwood to win another point for USA.
It was left to Zach Johnson to strike the final blow of the 2014 Ryder Cup as he holed out to secure a half from French rookie Victor Dubuisson.
With handshakes exchanged, Dubuisson was engulfed by his teammates, as a sea of champagne spray kickstarted a European party that is set to endure for another two years at least.