The Europeans were dead men walking, being massacred at Medinah.
The Ryder Cup, as a real contest, was all but over midway through this pleasant early fall afternoon Saturday, and the mood at one of Chicago’s most elite clubs — where Halloween came early and beer flowed freely — had turned to raucous celebration.
The United States had taken the Saturday morning foursomes session, 3-1, closed out the first two matches of the afternoon’s four-ball competition and had Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson 2-up in one match and Tiger Woods fighting back from 4-down to just 1-down in the other.
And then, as European shoulders slumped, along came Ian James Poulter, whose flamboyance can mask the warrior within him.
The Englishman, who’d teamed with Justin Rose to deliver the Europeans’ only point in the foursomes — a format they usually dominate — was a one-man wrecking crew of American dreams.
Poulter single-handedly has made the Sunday singles at the very least relevant.
His five closing birdies — perhaps the most clutch collection of putts this storied event has known — earned a critical point in the day’s last match against Dufner and Johnson, keeping the US lead, at 10-6, within reach.
“I think the Ryder Cup should build a statue for him,” said Europe’s captain, Jose Maria Olazabal. “That’s Poulter.”
“He thrives at this event. He loves to be in the spotlight. What he did today was outstanding. Just amazing.”
The cocksure Poulter’s dramatic victory — with Rory McIlroy — over Dufner and Johnson, 1-up, was punctuated with a 15-footer in the dusk to match Dufner’s birdie and give the Europeans, for the first time in two days, something to scream about.
“Come on, I’ve got my teammates right behind me. I’m not going to miss it for them. It was an outside right putt, and she went in,” he said.
His point, combined with Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia defeating Woods and Steve Stricker — the star American pairing hasn’t earned a single point — meant Olazabal’s men, outplayed so thoroughly for two days, could at least dream of a miracle.
Down by four points going into the 12 singles matches, the Europeans will need to match the historic American comeback of Brookline in 1999 to retain the cup.
They’re still, of course, very much long shots, but Poulter has at least inspired them. Former Irish Ryder Cupper and television analyst David Feherty said Poulter’s heroics have the Europeans feeling like “they’re tied, 6-10.”
“This event definitely brings the best out of Ian, and I’m glad it did today, because if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be in this position and we’d have a very tough task tomorrow,” said McIlroy.
Donald, who leads off in the singles against Bubba Watson, said Poulter’s stirring deeds had given his team the momentum.
“Seeing those putts go in, that’s certainly given us a lift,” he said.
And, of course, Poulter’s play had his teammates likening him to the greatest European Ryder Cup player, the late Seve Ballesteros, whom they will honor tomorrow.
On Sunday, the Europeans will wear Seve’s traditional final-round uniform; blue trousers and a white shirt.
The shirts will have Seve’s silhouette.
“Obviously, having Seve in our minds and in our hearts makes it even better,” said Garcia.
“I felt like he probably helped us a little bit today, and we’re going to need a lot of his help tomorrow. Hopefully, he’ll be there for us.”
Garcia was a Ryder Cup rookie at Brookline when the US stormed back from a four-point deficit to win.
“It was hard, because when you have it so close to the tip of your fingers, obviously they take it away from you and it’s hard,” he remembered.
“I hope we can make them feel something similar. It would be nice to kind of give it back the way they did it to us in ’99.”
Olazabal also conjured the spirit of Seve when he spoke on Saturday night of this Ryder Cup not yet being over.
“I believe, yeah,” he said.
“That’s what I learned from Seve, and that’s what I’m going to try to pass to the players. It’s not over until it’s over.”
And while he needs to believe that, he must also know that his quixotic tilt at this Ryder Cup needs more than just Poulter to stay undefeated.
US captain Davis Love III, not wanting to surrender any more momentum, has top-stacked his lineup on Sunday.
Four of his best performers — Watson, Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson — go off first, hoping to set the tempo and get the US on the way to the 4 1/2 points it needs.
Olazabal, as he needed to, sent his best at the top, too.
Donald, Poulter, McIlroy and Rose will need to get off to fast starts, put blue flags on the board and try and silence America’s 13th man, the loud Chicago galleries.
It’s crazy to think the Europeans have much of a chance, but that’s what everyone was saying on Saturday afternoon.
“This isn’t over,” said Mickelson. “We need to stay focused.”