The Year in Review: The Ryder Cup - Golf - Sport - The Independent

The Year in Review: The Ryder Cup

Bring on the rain, and Europe’s new reign

Hitting moving balls might currently pose a problem for British sportsmen, but in the propulsion of stationary ones, 1.68 inches in diameter, this has been a truly memorable year. According to golf's official world rankings, five of the current 10 best players on the planet hail from these islands, with a sixth, the young northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, ranked 11th. And topping the list, knocking Tiger Woods from a summit that once seemed his for as long as he wanted to occupy it, is 37-year-old Lee Westwood, Nottinghamshire's most accurate man over 300 yards since Robin Hood.

That Westwood was raised and still lives in the Worksop area somehow underlines the improbable surge of British golf. Aren't world number ones in golf meant to come from the sun-kissed coast of California? Mind you, Britain's last world number one, Nick Faldo, came from Welwyn Garden City. Watch out for the golfing talent emerging from Wigan, Warrington and Wolverhampton, and all other unremarkable places beginning with a W.

Meanwhile, for further proof of a golfing annus mirabilis, consider this: Westwood has seized Tiger's crown, and yet he is not even Britain's golfer of the year. That distinction belongs to Graeme McDowell, like McIlroy a Northern Irishman, who in June won the US Open. He was not just the first Brit to do so, but the first European, since Tony Jacklin from sunny Scunthorpe, 40 years ago.

While Westwood has risen from world number four a year ago to number one now, McDowell's rise through the rankings has been more dramatically vertiginous: from 39th up to sixth. And Woods features in his story, too. Three weeks ago, in a two-man play-off for the Chevron World Challenge in California, McDowell did to the Tiger what the Tiger used to do to everyone else, whittling away at his lead and then nailing a couple of killer 20ft putts to finish him off. True, Woods is not quite the player he was before his Cadillac Escalade notoriously careered into a fire hydrant 13 months ago, setting off a chain of events that would lead to the grievous loss of his wife, his coach, his form and several million-dollar endorsements, maybe but maybe not in descending order of grievousness. Yet the stat remains that he had never relinquished a lead of three or more shots going into a tournament's final day; over McDowell his lead had been four shots .

Had McDowell achieved nothing this year beyond winning the US Open and overcoming the still-mighty Woods in a head-to-head, he would have sat down to his Christmas lunch reflecting on incomparably the most successful period of his career. Yet it is not so much these deeds that he will look back on with pride, and which yielded a place on the shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year last Sunday, as his stirring heroics, one day in early October, in the Usk Valley in south Wales. It was the 38th Ryder Cup, between Europe and the US, that made a superstar of Graeme McDowell.

Team golf is in some ways an oxymoron. After all, greatness in the Royal and Ancient game is measured by individual rather than collective achievements. But that is precisely why the players so value the Ryder Cup, as a respite from their lonely toil, and a rare opportunity to make a golf course sound like a football stadium. McDowell and his young pal McIlroy combined solidly for the first three days of an event prolonged by apocalyptic weather, but on the fourth day, which miraculously unfolded under a cloudless sky, the man they call G-Mac was out on his own, sent out by captain Colin Montgomerie as the trusty anchorman in the last of the 12 singles matches, just in case a late point was required.

And boy, was it. On the 16th green, in just about the most fierce crucible of pressure that golf can produce, with the European hopes resting like a boulder on his shoulders, G-Mac somehow rolled in one of the most knee-trembling birdie putts that even old-timers could remember. By the next green the match was his, the trophy was Europe's, and winning the US Open was, astonishingly, no longer the highlight of his year.

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