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Ryder Cup: USA ends drought with triumph at Hazeltine

CHASKA, Minn. — Dear Arnold. They did it.

The sun went down Sunday on a new Ryder Cup rivalry. And when it was over at Hazeltine, when the U.S. could at long last leave a Ryder Cup in song and not in regret, there was a trophy. There were lessons to be learned. And there were so many images to savor and store away, from a weekend that will linger in golf. A weekend that started with mourning for Arnold Palmer, and ended with Americans dousing one another in champagne.

The trophy? A dainty little thing, considering all the heart that goes into playing for it.  But it has been so dearly missed, this only its third time in American hands in two decades. One reason why the winners embraced so emotionally, with so many bearing scars of Ryder Cups past. “They had a lot of pressure on them for the last two years,” Davis Love III said. “And every time we picked a guy, there was more and more pressure.”

The lessons?

One is that a program can’t be afraid to change. It took pain and deep disappointment to convince the U.S. to rework its Ryder Cup organization and effort, with Phil Mickelson its most visible proponent. The same Phil Mickelson, who at the twilight of his career made 10 birdies Sunday. “When put in the right environment, the U.S. team brought out some of their most amazing golf,” Mickelson said. “We’re bringing home the Ryder Cup because of it.”

Another is that there are two teams in this rivalry again, each capable of making life miserable for the other. “Disappointing obviously, but I think it’s good for golf,” Rory McIlroy said. “Keeps the Ryder Cup interesting.”

Another is that this event has grown to such a size, the crowds have become a vital part of the stage – and an enormous weapon for the home team.  The stands at No. 1 tee filled 90 minutes before the first shot? Kiss Cam on the video board? The land of 10,000 lakes turning into the land of 50,000 screamers? All true this week. American revival in the Ryder Cup came to the beat of “USA! USA!” that sometimes nearly shook the trees, and possibly the visiting team. As Zach Johnson said, “This one is for all the fans, too.”

But as the waves of people roll in and transform this event into a unique phenomenon, a few fools slip in, too, and improper behavior was something that annoyed the Europeans and will be an issue for all Ryder Cups forward, as the masses swell. There will be a huge throng in France in two years, and the noise directed toward the American team will have a far different tone than the past three days.

And one last lesson. A few birdie putts never hurt. The 12 U.S. players made 62 of them Sunday, and two eagles. No cold-putting team has ever won the Ryder Cup, nor ever will.

The images that will carry into history?

Start with Patrick Reed and McIlroy, in a duel for the ages. The Ryder Cup may never have seen anything like their battle Sunday on the front side, which produced noise somewhere between the first lap of the Indianapolis 500 and a shuttle launch. They combined for seven birdies and an eagle from Nos. 5 to 8, in a thunderous flurry of fist pumps and waving arms and yelps and hollers and finger wags and bows. After one birdie, McIlroy bellowed to the audience, “I can’t hear you!” Broadway had come to golf.

“Nothing personal out there,” McIlroy said later. “It’s all fun and games.”

They were like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed, exchanging a flurry of punches in the middle of the ring, until the frantic nature of it wore them out. The last 10 holes there were 3–over, but Reed had two birdies left and they gave him a 1-up victory in a classic. When it was settled on No. 18, some fans yelled at McIlroy, “We can’t hear you.”

That match will be the that one future Ryder Cup showdowns are measured against.

Or was it even the best match on Sunday? Mickelson’s 10 birdies weren’t good enough for a win, since opponent Sergio Garcia had nine. Without quite the histrionics of Reed-McIlroy up ahead – though it was certainly noisy enough – the two old golf warriors dueled until there were no holes left to birdie. After one long birdie, Mickelson even displayed his vertical jump, which is much shorter than a lot of the putts he made.

For either man to lose would have been an utter injustice. It had to end in a draw. And if it is Mickelson’s last Ryder Cup match, at the age of 46, what a way to go out. “I would have loved to get the win,” Garcia said. “Felt like I played well enough for it, but unfortunately Phil just kept doing what he knows how to do.”

Those two matches will be the bookend legendary moments of this Ryder Cup, but Sunday had much more.

There was Bubba Watson – who wanted so badly to play but was willing to be a vice-captain – weeping into Love’s arms, partly from the victory, partly from memories of his father.

“The last event my dad saw me play in was the Ryder Cup in 2010,” Watson said. “Nine days after the Ryder Cup, he passed way. He was at a hospital with a bunch of IVs in him and different things to keep breathing so he could watch his son.”

The embrace left Love drying his own tears. “Bubba showed us how much heart this American team has,” he said.

There were the golf gods flexing their irony, choosing Ryan Moore to score the clinching point for the U.S. Moore, the last captain’s pick, did not even know he was on the team until this time last week. He clinched a scintillating day of birdies with a conceded par on No. 18, and wondered a moment why so many of the teammates were coming his way. “I didn’t even know,” he said of the clincher.

There was Thomas Pieters, a Belgian by way of the University of Illinois, finishing his first Ryder Cup, winning four points, something no European rookie had even done.

And in the end, there was the U.S. looking at the Ryder Cup scoreboard that has been so unkind, and seeing a 17-11 score, its most lopsided win in 35 years, understanding the unity it had taken. “We all got a lot of trust in each other,” Dustin Johnson said. And knowing it required three days of fearless, exceptional, never-take-your-foot-off-the-gas golf to pull it off.

“To be real honest, I never thought I could see golf played this well,” Ben Crenshaw said.

It was a new-age, noisy, not-to-be missed Ryder Cup, leaving golf anxious to do it all over again in two years. Can any great event ask for more?