Going into the final day, the Americans still have a big lead, 10-6 over Europe in the prestigious tournament.
Medinah, Ill: Europe sure didn't look like a team trailing by four points in the Ryder Cup. Under a darkening sky, there was still enough light to see the whites of Ian Poulter's bulging eyes and his golf ball disappear into the cup for a fifth straight birdie — and another crucial point on Saturday. There was no mistaking the smile of captain Jose Maria Olazabal, who waited from sunrise to sunset at Medinah for hope that this cup was still within reach.
Right when it looked like the Americans were a lock to win it back, Poulter came through with a performance so remarkable that it was the only match Europe won when it trailed on the back nine. Right before him, Luke Donald matched a clutch shot by Tiger Woods with one that was even better and it kept Woods winless for the first time going into Sunday singles.
Those two matches gave Europe a load of momentum going into the final day, even if all it really changed was the size of the deficit. The Americans still had a big lead, 10-6. Europe at least had hope.
The endless chants of "USA! USA!" gave way at the end to snappy serenades of "Ole, Ole, Ole" as both sides trudged to their team rooms in darkness, the Europeans in their berry-colored sweaters walking a little taller. "We're excited about our position," U.S. captain Davis Love III said. "But we know it's not over yet."
That's what Ben Crenshaw said in 1999 at Brookline when the Americans trailed by the same score, and then delivered the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history. That's what Europe faces now. The message Olazabal had for his team Saturday night was simple. "Let's go out there and play your socks off."
Olazabal remembers that American comeback as well as anyone. He was warming up on the range when the Americans sent their best players out early and won the first six matches. He was in the decisive match against Justin Leonard, who holed a 45-foot putt on the 17th hole. And he was in the team room in tears with the rest of the Europeans.
Is the Spaniard a big believer in fate? "I believe momentum will come our way," Olazabal said. "Why not tomorrow?"
Olazabal borrowed a page from that '99 Ryder Cup by loading the top of his singles lineup with his best players. Luke Donald leads off against Bubba Watson, followed by Poulter against Webb Simpson, Rory McIlroy against Keegan Bradley and Justin Rose against Phil Mickelson.
Love put Woods in the anchor positions against Francesco Molinari, whom Woods beat in Wales two years ago. The European strategy was no surprise. Love was at Brookline, too. He realized Europe had no other choice. And he was not the least bit worried that his team would look ahead to winning, or turn tight and play not to lose.
"Even if they were in primary school, they know about 1999, and they know the story," Love said. "They know Ben Crenshaw. They know Justin Leonard. They know what can happen. And they're going to be having the same kind of team meeting we had in '99. 'All right, boys, we've got to win the first six.' And then the game is one."
The final two matches Saturday were a showcase of what the Ryder Cup is all about — one brilliant shot after another, birdies on every hole, suspense at every turn.
Donald and Sergio Garcia were on the verge of blowing a 4-up lead to hard-charging Woods and Steve Stricker, hanging on when Donald matched two birdies with Woods, including a tee shot into the 17th that plopped down 2 feet from the cup.
Woods, who made five birdies on the back nine for the second straight day without a point to show for it, was thinking more of the big picture. "Being up four is nice," he said. "We are in a great spot right now to win the cup."
Poulter and McIlroy were 2 down with six holes to play against Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson when McIlroy made a 15-foot birdie putt on the 13th, and Poulter took it from there. "We had to make birdies, and wow! Five in a row. It was awesome," Poulter said. "I've got the world No. 1 at my side, backing me up. It allowed me to hit some golf shots."
The crowd was still buzzing as it filed out of Medinah, and Poulter grinned. "It's pretty fun, this Ryder Cup," said Poulter, who raised his career record to 11-3-0.
It's been plenty fun for the Americans, who for the first time have not lost any of the four sessions since the Ryder Cup switched to the current format in 1979. Mickelson and Bradley were flawless in foursomes, matching a Ryder Cup record for largest margin with a 7-and-6 win over Donald and Lee Westwood.
Mickelson and Bradley have been so dominant that they have yet to play the 18th hole in any of their three matches. Bradley became the first rookie since Garcia in 1999 to win his first three matches.
They didn't play in the afternoon, part of the master plan by U.S. captain Davis Love III to make sure his players were fresh for Sunday. Love became the first U.S. captain since 1979 to make sure each of his players sat out at least one match before the final day.
Now, he finds out if it will work. "We're not disappointed," Love said of the late rally by Europe. "We haven't lost a segment yet, and we're just going to try to keep that string going."
Despite the last two matches that swung momentum away from them, the Americans only have to look at their 10-6 lead — their largest since it was 10½-5½ in 1981 — to realize how close they are to winning back that 17-inch gold trophy. They only need 14½ points to win. That translates to four wins and a halve in the 12 singles matches, traditionally an American strength.
And they have built this lead without getting a single point from Woods, who has lost his last five matches with Stricker in two Ryder Cups and a Presidents Cup. "I've played well the last two afternoons and didn't get a point," Woods said. "It's tough. Yesterday I made a bunch of birdies and today I made five on the back nine and it just wasn't enough."
His team has carried him along, though. Watson and Simpson rolled to a 5-and-4 win in the afternoon, while Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar won for the second straight time in fourballs in a tight match. It was tied going to the par-3 17th, a daunting shot from an elevated tee to a narrow green guarded by water. Johnson hit 8-iron to 20 feet and poured in the birdie putt, setting off the loudest cheer of a raucous week outside Chicago. They halved the 18th for a 1-up win.
"Probably the loudest roar I've ever heard," Johnson said. "In that situation, probably one of the best putts I've ever made."
The Americans had a 5-3 lead to start the day, and it was critical for the Europeans to make inroads. Instead, they saw more American red on the scoreboards and heard endless cheers erupt from all corners of Medinah.
Leading the way was Bradley, the rock star of this Ryder Cup who was so fired up that he came out to the first tee well before his match to ask for noise. In alternate shot, the most difficult format, Bradley and Mickelson had six birdies in 10 holes, and their 7-and-6 win tied the Ryder Cup record last matched in 1991.
Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker atoned for a Friday loss by beating McIlroy and Graeme McDowell in 18 holes, and the Americans took an 8-4 lead to the afternoon. All the momentum was on their side. The crowd felt it, and so did the players from both teams.
"It was hard — very hard — to ignore the red on the board," McDowell said. "It's hard to ignore the noise that's been made around the golf course. There's blood in the water. They're up for it."
That's what made those last two matches so critical. Woods did not play Saturday morning, the first time he's ever been at the Ryder Cup in uniform without a tee time, and he didn't contribute much in falling so far behind. But he turned it around on the back nine, pointing to the cup when a birdie putt fell, screaming orders at his tee shot as the ball was in the air, looking like he was on the verge of a big comeback. Donald and Garcia, who had yet to win a point, made sure that didn't happen.
"That was big," Donald said. "Having these matches turn our way has really given the European side a lift that we needed. It's given us a heartbeat for tomorrow."
Poulter and McIlroy came up big in so many ways. The Americans had won every match at Medinah when leading on the back nine until the final match. McIlroy made his sliding birdie putt from 15 feet on the 13th hole, and Poulter did the rest. "Poults gets that look in his eye — especially the week of the Ryder Cup — and it's really impressive," McIlroy said.
The Europeans now hope to repeat the American comeback in 1999. The Americans had Ben Crenshaw, wagging his finger and saying, "I'm a big believer in fate." The Europeans have Olazabal, a proud Spaniard and teammate of the late Seve Ballesteros. This is the first Ryder Cup since his death from a brain tumor in May 2011, and the Europeans will dress in navy blue, the color Ballesteros favored on Sunday. Their uniforms will bear his iconic silhouette.
"It's always possible," Paul Lawrie said. "Until it's impossible to do it, then you fight on, certainly for José María this week. No one is going to be giving up."