The Ryder Cup: The Glassy-Eyed Stare

The United States Ryder Cup team managed to finish Saturday at Medinah Country Club in Chicago, by extending their lead from two to four over the European team. They came into the day at 5 – 3 and ended it at 10 – 6. They had a good day.

All of the damage was done in the morning foresomes where they went 3 – 1, a session that included Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson’s record-tying thrashing (7 & 6) of two of the Euros most stalwart players, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald.

The afternoon session looked like it was going to be another rout. The lead match of Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson never trailed and it was only All Square four times. That meant that it was “U.S.-red” virtually all day long. And, best of all, it ended that way at 1-up.

The second match of Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson was red all day too and they only had to play 14 holes. They won 5 & 4.

In the third match, Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker were in trouble all day long. At one point they were 4-down and looked incapable of doing anything about it. “Well, okay. It looks like the Euros are going to get this one.” It turned out that they did, but not before Tiger reeled off five birdies on the back nine. He needed one more. But it was valiantly fought and looked like it was going to the Euros all along anyway. Bravo.

But it was the fourth and final match between Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson and Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy that gave the Euros hope. The Americans were steadily in control of the match with a 2-up lead through a big chunk of the middle holes. They were so steady it seemed almost a certainty that it was going red too. And then Ian Poulter caught fire and made five birdies in the last five holes. The Americans couldn’t match the two on 15 and 16 and lost 1-down.

The effect of this last win was that instead of the Americans going 3 – 1 in the afternoon session as well, they went 2 -2. Instead of the total score going to an insurmountable 11 – 5, Poulter managed to keep it to 10 – 6.

That’s still going to be a big ask in Sunday’s twelve singles matches, but that was the second day score the year the Americans made their historic comeback because Captain Ben Crenshaw “had a feeling.”

With the strength of the U.S. team and it’s traditional dominance in singles, it’s still a long shot for the Euros. But it is still possible as the Americans once proved.

All of this detail as an introduction to my central theme in this post: I’m less interested in this detail than I am in the performances of both Keegan Bradley and Ian Poulter.

Why? Because both of them got so deeply involved in their play, it was almost like somebody else had taken over their bodies. They both had that intense, glassy-eyed stare, they were so deep inside it.

Bradley went so far as to leave the practice putting green before his round and go over to the first tee for an adrenaline fix. He just suddenly showed up on the tee, the crowd saw him coming, began to cheer and he stood there a moment or two thrusting his arms in the air trying to get them pumped up even more:

I was on the putting green, it was a little early, and I heard the crowd, and I needed just a little shot of adrenaline from them.  I knew if I went out there and got them excited it would help them, too.

It was just a fun experience for me, and they got me ready to play well today.

We have seen Bradley before in full flight, most notably the PGA Championship he improbably won last year and the playoff he managed to get himself into at Riviera this year. He gets in this trance-like state where his eyes glaze over and all of his facial muscles relax. It’s the face of a stoic with steroids in his eyes.

The same thing happens for Poulter, except his already large eyes become bug eyes. And he goes into that same trance-like state. His is punctuated with roaring bellows of triumph every time he is successful, particularly on the putting greens. There was a lot of bellowing in his afternoon match.

But the other thing about getting into that state of complete absorption is that is slows time down. There was one hole — I think the par-3 17th — where he stood over his eight-foot putt motionlessly for what seemed like forever.

You can’t do that when you’re in a normal state of mind because you tend to get jumpy or impatient and want to get it over with. But when time has stopped for you, you can stand over a putt in a state of calm making those last micro-corrections to the putter face, all the while developing a deeper and deeper understanding of the line of the putt. All of Poulter’s seemed to go right over the center of the lip of the cup.

Now while it is highly advantageous to get into the zone while you’re playing, it is also important that you pop up out of it between shots. Bradley was forever grinning and fist-bumping Phil Mickelson. All of that is a constructive release so that your mind doesn’t get burned out with the intensity of it all.

Poulter will be second off the tee Sunday morning playing Webb Simpson and Bradley will be right behind him playing Rory McIlroy. The Euros have front-loaded their lineup trying to get early points on the board and excitement in the air.

Watching these two masters hit all manner of incredible shots is why we watch. But just as interesting will be watching their eyes as they do it.

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