SUTTON COLDFIELD, England - The unwritten Ryder Cup rules for both teams are simple, really, just a matter of counting. Ready? You start at eight and if the United States gets to 14 first, it's over. A three-day marathon that has turned into a sprint, that's what the Ryder Cup has become, with nothing left today but 12 matches worth 12 points and equal chances for glory or gloom at the Belfry.
For the first time since the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, S.C., the U.S. team and Europe start the final day in a tie. How that happened was either heartbreaking or lucky, depending on your point of view, because the 8-8 tie after yesterday wouldn't have occurred if not for a heavy dose of the unexpected.
How often does Sergio Garcia miss a 2-foot putt? He did it yesterday. Teamed with partner Lee Westwood and 2-up with two to play against Tiger Woods and Davis Love III, Garcia three-putted the 17th after reaching the green in two and lost the hole. Then, at the 18th, Westwood stood over a 3 1/2 -footer for par that would have halved the match. He missed, pulling it.
"We got away with one," Love said. "You never know what's going to happen."
Woods and Love accepted the gift, a 1-up victory in best ball, then stood back to watch Scott Hoch and Jim Furyk drop the last hole but still halve their match with Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke, even though the U.S. team had a 2-up lead through 13 holes. Woods, who won twice yesterday, was nearly flawless in his afternoon match with Love. Woods made seven birdies, which was not so simple when his task was to hit the ball and then drag Love along.
Love had no birdies with David Duval on Friday, had one birdie with Woods until the 17th, where he chose to display a keen sense of the dramatic by chipping in for birdie to win the match. Neither Love nor Woods tried to drive the par-4 10th hole, which measured 263 yards to the front, even after they saw both Garcia and Westwood make it with the match all square.
"It wasn't the right play," Love said. "We just didn't hit good wedges."
Both Garcia and Westwood made their birdie putts to take a 1-up lead, but when Woods birdied the 13th, it was even again.
Of course, by now, the unpredictable had become routine. Who except U.S. captain Curtis Strange saw a better-ball pairing of Mark Calcavecchia and David Duval? Strange probably wished he hadn't after they were 3-down to Niclas Fasth and Jesper Parnevik after seven holes.
But that move worked out, too, for Strange. Duval even boldly drove the green at the 10th, two-putted for a birdie and turned the match around in what became a 1-up U.S. victory. Fasth and Parnevik were 2-up at the 10th, and Duval knew something had to give.
"In that situation, we needed something," Duval said. "Really, to swing the momentum, we had to take a shot at it."
Even so, it's a numbers game now for both sides. In the last 11 Ryder Cup competitions, the U.S. team has won the singles nine times. The only exceptions were in 1995 at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., and in 1985 at the Belfry - both victories by Europe.
The 1999 U.S. victory at Brookline, Mass., is noted as the largest last-day comeback in Ryder Cup history. Trailing, 10-6, the U.S. team won the singles, 8 1/2 -3 1/2 , to take back the Cup, 14 1/2 -13 1/2 . Thomas Bjorn doesn't buy the theory that the U.S. team usually wins on Sunday.
"What is history?" he said. "Oak Hill? We won the singles, 7-5, at Oak Hill. It can be done. If we can win, 7-5, in America [with] a team that was the underdogs there, we can win the singles here."
Bernhard Langer, who with Montgomerie edged Scott Verplank and Hoch, 1-up, in the morning, said Montgomerie's play has been a vital element and credited his mental approach.
"I don't think he was down very much the last two days," Langer said. "He seemed very relaxed, even in the practice rounds."
Europe maintained its one-point lead from the first day and the U.S. team trailed 6 1/2 -5 1/2 when yesterday's better-ball matches began in the afternoon.
But Strange left himself open for some second-guessing with his pairings as soon as they were announced.
Strange benched Paul Azinger and paired Duval with Calcavecchia, who has admitted he isn't comfortable in better ball. Strange also kept Hoch on the course, even though he was winless after two matches, and paired him with Furyk, which meant that Furyk would play all five matches.
All four of the U.S. teams trailed, but Strange's moves worked out, thanks to the putts by Garcia and Westwood that stayed out of the hole.
Thomas Bonk is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Ryder Cup today
Where: The Belfry, Sutton Coldfield, England
How it stands: The United States and Europe are tied 8-8 after two days of matches.
Today: Singles finals; 12 matches with every player from each team competing.
At stake: Today's winner will keep the Ryder Cup for two years. As defending champion, the United States needs only to tie (14 points) to retain the cup. Europe needs 14 1/2 to win.
TV: 7 a.m., Channel 11