LOUISVILLE, Ky. —Boo Weekley traded his beloved beer for champagne, filling flutes for fans who turned the familiar European chant “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” into “No way, no way.”
Phil Mickelson draped an American flag over his shoulders as he sauntered up the 18th fairway. U.S. captain Paul Azinger sprinted up the stairs to the clubhouse balcony at Valhalla, grabbed the biggest bottle of bubbly he could find and joined a party that plays out every two years at the Ryder Cup.
Finally, it was the Americans’ turn to celebrate.
“I never tried to think about what the outcome might be, and I started to dream about it a little bit today, thinking this could actually happen,” Azinger said with the shiny gold trophy at his side. “It just feels great to have it back on our soil.”
The Americans didn’t need a miracle putt or an amazing comeback like their last victory in 1999.
They didn’t even need Tiger Woods.
Strong as a team, equally mighty on their own, they rode the emotion of a flag-waving crowd and their Kentucky heroes on Sunday to take back the Ryder Cup with a 16 1/2 -11 1/2 victory, their biggest margin over Europe in 27 years.
This Ryder Cup was all about role reversal.
It was the Americans who played as a team, with Azinger splitting them into three pods of personalities and keeping them together from the time they arrived at Valhalla.
The biggest putts belonged to the Americans, whether it was Hunter Mahan making one from 60 feet across the 17th green or Kentucky native Kenny Perry making just about everything in the defining moment of his career.
They even found someone to get under Sergio Garcia’s skin—Anthony Kim, who refused to concede anything, revved up the crowd and handed Europe’s best Ryder Cup player his biggest loss.
The biggest change of all?
Those were Americans huddled around Azinger on the stage at closing ceremonies, stretching to touch that 17-inch chalice.
“Their team was more of a European team,” Padraig Harrington said.
They sure got a European result.
“I’ve been on the other side when they made the winning putt and it’s no fun” said Jim Furyk, whose 2-and-1 victory over Miguel Angel Jimenez gave the Americans the final point they needed. “I had a pretty rotten look on my face during this press conference. And now, I’m pretty damn happy.”
Perry, the 48-year-old native son who dreamed of playing a Ryder Cup before a Bluegrass crowd, delivered a 3-and-2 victory that was part of an early push that swung momentum toward the U.S. team.
“I figured this was going to define my career,” he said. “But you know what? It made my career.”
J.B. Holmes, legendary in these parts for making his high school team in tiny Campbellsville as a third-grader, showed off his awesome power with two final birdies that set up the Americans for victory.
For all the birdies and spectacular shots over three inspirational days at Valhalla, the Ryder Cup ended with handshake.
Jimenez conceded a short par putt, giving Furyk a 2-and-1 victory and the Americans the 14 1/2 points they needed to show they can win on golf’s biggest stage—and without Woods, out for the year with a knee surgery but staying involved by text messaging Azinger throughout the final day.
“They just took an everything-to-gain attitude into this competition,” Azinger said. “And I couldn’t be happier.”
This truly was a team effort.
Kim set the tone with a 30 on the front nine that demoralized Garcia. Weekley galloped off the first tee using his driver as a toy horse, drawing laughter for his antics and cheers for his five birdies and an eagle he holed from the bunker.
Mahan, who criticized the Ryder Cup earlier this year as a money-making machine, was the only player to go all five matches without losing at Valhalla. His match was the only one to reach the 18th green, all because of a 60-foot birdie putt from Mahan that slammed into the back of the cup on the 17th hole.
He wound up with a halve against Paul Casey, and a new appreciation for this event.
“It’s an incredible, incredible experience,” said Mahan, who went 2-0-3 and tied a U.S. record for most points as a captain’s pick. “I wish every golfer could experience this, because it’s amazing.”
Ben Curtis and Chad Campbell, the final player picked for this U.S. team, won the final two matches against Lee Westwood and Harrington for a lopsided score that for the last three years had been posted in European blue.
It was the largest margin of victory for the Americans since 1981.
Despite his misfit collection of stars—from the backwoods Weekley to the street-smart Kim—perhaps no one made a greater impact on the U.S. victory than Azinger.
It was his idea to overhaul the qualifying system, which he felt was keeping the Americans from fielding their best team. He also doubled his captain’s picks, and those four players produced one-third of the points.
And those six U.S. rookies? They went 9-4-8.
“I poured my heart and soul into this for two years,” Azinger said, his voice cracking. “The players poured their heart and soul into this for one week. They deserved it. I couldn’t be happier.”
European captain Nick Faldo won’t get off that easy.
The British press blistered him for benching Garcia and Westwood—the most successful European tandem—on Saturday, the first time either of them had ever missed a match in the Ryder Cup. Even more peculiar was putting three of his strongest players at the bottom of the lineup—Ian Poulter, Westwood and Harrington.
The Ryder Cup was decided as their matches were in progress. Their points never had a chance to matter.
“I’m disappointed for the guys,” Faldo said. “We’ve all given 100 percent. I will decide how long I wish to think about it.”
Faldo at least was validated by taking Poulter, who had only two top 10s all year. The brash Englishman was the only European to play all five matches and went 4-1, tying the record for most points by a European captain’s pick set last time by Westwood.
Even so, the biggest surprise was Europe’s best players.
Garcia and Westwood failed to win a match for the first time in the Ryder Cup. Harrington, coming off a summer in which he won the British Open and PGA Championship, has gone nine consecutive matches without winning. He is 0-7-2 the last two times.
Down early in eight matches, Europe chipped away, however, until it was clear the Ryder Cup could down to a big-hitting rookie.
Holmes was all square with Soren Hansen after they traded birdies through the 15th hole and tension began to build. Holmes tugged on his black glove, waggled his driver and hammered a tee shot on the 511-yard 16th that set up a birdie and a 1-up lead.
On the next hole, he sent another powerful drive well to the left, but it bounced up a slope, through the gallery, over a cart path, and kept right on rolling back into the short grass. His wedge spun back to 3 feet to set up the victory.
Azinger, riding around Valhalla in his cart to applaud the crowd and pump them up, jumped off the grassy slope with a look on his face that suggested he had never seen anything like this.
It had been eight long years since the Americans could celebrate like this, and they get two years to enjoy it.