Ryder Cup: Luke Donald freezes out Bubba Watson to launch Europe's day of days


Click to follow
The Independent Online

What do you do when you need to put out an American firestorm? You send for the Ice Man. Bubba Watson did his utmost to stoke the flames yesterday morning by whipping up the home fans into frenzy again on the first tee. But Luke Donald simply froze him out to win 2&1. European blue on the leaderboard. First point claimed. Momentum.

Donald could do no more to affect the result but he had done his job. Mind you, the Ice Man almost melted. He was coasting at four up through 13 holes until Watson rattled off three birdies in a row before running out of holes.

"I don't know what I would have done going down 18," Donald said. "The nerves were starting to build and Bubba was putting some serious pressure on me. What a relief. I had a lot of responsibility going out number one. Ollie [Europe captain Jose María Olazabal] had enough trust in me to go out first and get that first point. It's a great honour."

Olazabal judged the mood of the singles line-up perfectly. He surely knew US captain Davis Love III would send out Watson, his hyped-up hyperactive hyperventilating cheerleader, in the lead match to get the crowd behind his team and create an overwhelming and intimidating atmosphere for the European players.

Olazabal resisted the temptation to unleash the eyes-a-popping, fist pumping, head-exploding Ian Poulter in the No 1 position. The danger would be that they would spontaneously combust. Much better than fighting fire with fire was to send out Europe's unflappable ice-cool Donald.

Watson did his best to play his part. He ran, not, strolled, across the bridge from the practice putting green to the first tee. The American fans picked up on his energy. "Bub-bah Wat-son" they chanted. He applauded them, approached the packed grandstand, took off his cap and threw it to a kid in the front row. What theatre. This guy sure knows how to work a crowd.

When it came to teeing off, the crowd fell silent. Watson paused, stepped back and raised his hands to the fans as if to say, "Come on, where's the noise?" And so, against all the traditions of golf, Watson whacked that pink-shafted driver like he's swinging a flamingo by its leg to a cacophony of cheers and whoops and hollers.

Once every two years golf goes crazy and thinks it's football. There was even a rendition of Liverpool's Kop anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone", as Watson and Donald prepared to go head-to-head. "Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart," they sang as Europe set off to try to claw back a four-point deficit.

Players and fans were channelling Seve Ballesteros, too. In a tribute to the godfather of European golf and Ryder Cup legend, the Europeans wore Seve's Sunday blue jumper and trousers with his silhouette on the sleeve of their white shirts. "One Ballesteros, there's only one Ballesteros," came the rallying cry from the Europeans. Outnumbered they may have been, but their football songs were dominating the deep-throated grunts of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

This match was wild power and artistry versus precision engineering and science. The freewheeling, twitching, floppy mop-topped bag of nerves Watson versus the immaculately turned-out, metronomic, poker-faced relentless and mentally rock-hard Donald.

There can be no players whose games are more intrinsically poles apart. Donald was at times 60 yards behind his opponent off the tee. That's when his opponent wasn't playing his second shots from behind trees and up against fences in the picnic areas on the fringes of the course. Maybe he was challenging the spirit of Seve, his boyhood hero, too.

After all the clowning around on the first tee, when the serious business of golf began, Watson blasted his opening drive way right into the galleries. His people were loving getting up close to their hero. Others were loving getting their voices heard and trying to get under Donald's skin. "Get in the lake," yelled one yahoo as Donald hit his iron into the par three second after the first hole was halved with birdies and air punches.

The best way to deal with hecklers? Win the hole. Watson bogeyed after hooking his tee shot again. Donald one up. He went two up at the fourth after Watson yanked his fourth tee shot in a row. Donald was doodling along in the middle of fairways and looking dandy.

Another heckle at the fifth. As Donald walked onto the green, a lone voice taunted him about his zero major championship titles. He then tugged a three-footer that would have won the hole and scrunched up his face in frustration.

As he walked past the grandstand heading for the sixth tee, another shout came from out of the crowd. "Hey Luke, nice putt buddy".

Watson missed an opportunity to pull back a hole when they arrived at the sixth green. Donald had already made a mess of a chip and a curly-wurly putt and made bogey.

Just as Watson was about to pull the trigger on his four-footer to win the hole, the deafening silence was broken by the revving engine of a hot rod sports car on the road just over the fence in this far corner of the course. Instead of backing off his putt and waiting for the vroom-vroom to fade over the horizon, he swung his putter and missed the putt. Watson stared in disbelief at where the racket had come from.

Maybe it was the valet parking the General Lee, the orange Dodge Charger from The Dukes of Hazzard that Watson owns. He was still boiling mad after hitting his tee shot at the seventh and fired a death stare at an American who yelled, "Get in the hole." The seventh, it should be noted, is a 617-yard par five. They halved with birdies but Donald made Watson hole out from no further than two feet. Match play mind games.

Donald spoke after the match about the Seve effect on the team.

"We had an opportunity to make history," he said. "That Seve was watching down on us and we hoped some of Seve's magic could rub off on the boys coming home." Seve would have been proud of the European fightback.