MEDINAH, Ill.: The ultimate team event in golf sometimes is decided by a single player.
Jim Furyk holds a unique spot in Ryder Cup history as the only player to win and lose the decisive match. He knows euphoria as well as dejection. So when he talks about the possibility of being in that position again Sunday at Medinah, he speaks in terms of accepting the role, not relishing it.
Everyone wants to be the star, but it’s a good bet every player at Medinah knows what he means.
“I think everyone playing in this tournament would love to be in that position,” Furyk said Tuesday. “You just have to be able to accept the fact that sometimes it turns out good, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
It’s not about having the skill to hit the clutch shot. It’s having the strength to cope with failure.
Furyk can handle the failure when he only has to answer to himself.
Three months ago, he was tied for the lead at the U.S. Open when he hit a snap hook off the tee on the par-5 16th at Olympic Club that led to bogey. He never made up that shot and wasted a wonderful chance at winning his second major. Equally devastating was going to the 18th hole at Firestone, having led from the opening round, and making a double bogey to lose by 1 shot. He had to console his 8-year-old son who was in tears.
It’s a different monster when you answer to 11 teammates.
Who wants the ball?
You can be Adam Vinatieri or Scott Norwood. Bobby Thomson or Ralph Branca.
“You wouldn’t wish to be in that position, I don’t suppose,” Paul Lawrie said. “But if you are, you would like to think that you could do what needed to be done. But you don’t know until you get there. I would imagine it’s pretty tough.”
Paul Azinger probably would have passed on such an opportunity. But he didn’t have a choice.
He had played in enough Ryder Cups to know that when it’s close going to Sunday, the clincher is likely to be anywhere from the seventh to the 11th spot in the lineup of 12 singles matches. Azinger was a captain’s pick for the 2001 team, only to have the Ryder Cup postponed a year by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. By then, he was out of form. He played poorly in the opening session with Tiger Woods and didn’t play again until he had no choice. Everyone plays singles.
Azinger was inserted into the eighth match against Niclas Fasth.
“You put a guy in that spot when you have incredible belief in him, or he has it in himself,” Azinger said.
On that day, he wasn’t sure either was true. Europe was one point away from winning the cup, and Fasth had a 1-up lead playing the 18th. Azinger was in the bunker, needing a birdie to win, and he holed the shot.
“One of the greatest shots I’ve ever hit,” he said. “If I miss, we lose.”
A short time later, it came down to Furyk and Paul McGinley, who had pulled even on the previous hole with a 12-foot birdie putt. Furyk blasted out of the bunker to about 3 feet for a certain par. McGinley missed the green by a mile, and then hit a marvelous pitch to about 8 feet.
He had to make the putt to halve the match and win the cup for Europe.
“It’s kind of an empty feeling when you’re done and there’s nothing I could do to affect the outcome at that point,” Furyk said. “Watching it go in, seeing the place erupt and being on the green, you feel responsible. Even though it’s a team event, even though I didn’t lose my match, that half-point cost us the Ryder Cup. And that empty feeling stuck with me. You feel responsible. Every guy on the team will come up and put their arm around you and say, ‘Hey, man, it was all of us.’
“But it’s a bad feeling.”
Not for McGinley, who dove into the water left of the green in a delirious celebration.
Graeme McDowell and Hunter Mahan were in the final match at Celtic Manor two years ago, never dreaming — never really wanting — the Ryder Cup to come down to them until it did just that. McDowell was 1-up when he holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole, and then won the match outright with a par. Mahan made it look worse when he flubbed a chip in front of the green, though he probably would have had to chip in anyway.
Mahan was in tears. It was tough for him to talk, and heart-wrenching for most to even listen.
The Presidents Cup doesn’t have nearly the kind of pressure as the Ryder Cup, except for one late afternoon in South Africa when the burden was almost too much for any one player to shoulder — even a player like Woods.
In a format that no longer exists, Woods and Ernie Els were sent out for a sudden-death playoff when the matches ended in a tie. On the third extra hole, when it was almost too dark to see, Woods had a 15-foot putt for par that broke twice, and all he could see were 11 players in red shirts off to his right. He made it. Els had 6 feet left for par that he had to make for himself, his teammates, an entire country. He made it, and the captains opted to share the cup.
“That was one of the most nerve-racking moments I’ve ever had in golf,” Woods said that day.
Who wants the ball?
For every Philip Watson, there is a Jay Haas. For every Hale Irwin, there is a Bernhard Langer.
Furyk was on the other side at Valhalla four years ago when his match gave the Americans a rare win in the Ryder Cup. He was 2 up on Miguel Angel Jimenez when the Spaniard missed a 15-foot putt on the 17th and conceded the match. The Americans began rushing toward Furyk to celebrate.
Having been on the other side, the celebration could wait. Furyk shook hands with Jimenez and pulled him close.
“Before getting really excited, I wanted to go over and shake his hand and talk to him a little bit about it,” Furyk said. “There’s nothing you can say that can make anyone feel better, but I wanted to show him his due respect. Because he played so well during the week.
“You don’t know how empty that feeling is until you sit in those shoes.”