Ed. note: This remembrance is the fifth and final installment in a series to highlight noteworthy Ryder Cup matches, during the week the biennial event was to be played at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin.
All eyes, many of them filled with tears, were on the scenic 16th green nestled on an island at the edge of the River Liffey. This was the spot where destiny seemed the likeliest to merge with sentimentality. This was where the Emerald Isle’s own Darren Clarke – only six weeks removed from the death of his wife, Heather, from cancer – would add the final glorious punctuation on an emotional homecoming at the K Club.
The well-lubricated and full-throated fans in the heart of that arena were blissfully oblivious to the fact that the 2006 Ryder Cup was already over. Well, everyone knew it was pretty much over before Sunday’s singles ever started and the lopsided outcome had been obvious for hours. But one minute before Clarke could clean up his fairytale finish, the Cup was well and truly over.
The actual conclusion happened in relative peace and quiet about 600 yards behind the stage that had been set for Clarke. European rookie Henrik Stenson rolled in a 6-foot par putt and took off his cap to shake the hand of American rookie Vaughn Taylor. Stenson’s 4-and-3 victory – on the heels of quick-succession closeouts by teammates David Howell and Luke Donald – pushed Europe to 15 points and secured the outright victory.
“Unfortunately, Henrik here …” Clarke started, half in jest, as he gestured across the besotted dais at his young Swedish teammate, “fortunately Henrik holed the winning putt.” With a little wink as the laughter in the press conference caught up, “I didn’t think you got that one there; I thought it had gone over your head.”
“There’s been a few debates as to who won it,” European captain Ian Woosnam later said. “We’ll put it down to Stenson. But at the end of the day it’s a team effort.”
Stenson’s untimely “faux pas” did nothing to diminish the party that erupted and the songs that flowed like a warm embrace of Clarke on that 16th green when he finished off his 3-and-2 singles win over Zach Johnson to pad what ended up being an 18½-9½ result – matching the largest victory margin for Team Europe set only two years before at Oakland Hills. (It might have been a record 19-9 romp had Paul McGinley not conceded J.J. Henry’s 25-foot putt on the 18th green for a halve after a streaker came running onto the green. “It wasn’t even a woman,” Lee Westwood said.)
All of Straffan and County Kildare seemed to echo with the celebration that rolled on from that cozy corner of the Palmer Course and back to the clubhouse – where Irish team members McGinley, Pádraig Harrington and even the Ulsterman Clarke draped themselves in the tricolour flag and sprayed magnums of champagne over each other and every adoring fan crowded underneath the balcony. The party stretched deep into the night with even the roundly beaten Americans joining in.
But that scene on the 16th green when the rugged Clarke broke down in tears on his captain’s shoulder was the enduring moment. Earlier in the month, only two weeks after Heather succumbed to breast cancer, Woosnam offered Clarke a place on the team if he wanted it. Clarke took a day with his young sons to consider it before accepting. That primary emotion of the week not only carried Clarke to a 3-0 mark but brought a sense of unified invincibility to the rest of the European team that a very inexperienced U.S. side was no match for from the jump (the Americans lost every session).
“At the beginning of the week if someone asked me ‘Do you believe in destiny?’ I would have said no, most probably,” said Woosnam. “But when I stood on that 16th green and seeing Darren finishing off his match, that changed my mind. I think that was destiny. I think that week was destiny for Darren and for Heather as well. That’s why we dedicated it to her.”
Whether it was destiny or not, the result of the 2006 match was in some ways preordained before the teams ever arrived at the lush and soggy parkland resort outside of Dublin. American captain Tom Lehman was dealt a difficult hand. His four rookies – Taylor, Henry, Johnson and Brett Wetterich – owned a combined five PGA Tour wins at the time (both of Taylor’s were in the same opposite event) and only Johnson was ranked inside the top 60 in the world. Based on world ranking, it was the weakest roster Team USA had ever sent to the biennial matches.
“We have four rookies that are always a bit of a question mark, although I believe that they are tremendous players,” Lehman said at the start of the week. “I have total confidence in them. But at the end of the day, I think the European team based on the strength of their team playing here in Ireland would probably have to be favored slightly.”
Lehman’s rookies accounted for 3½ points for the Americans in nine matches, which is the same number of points Tiger Woods (3) and Phil Mickelson (½) contributed in 10. But it might not have made much difference who was wearing red, white and blue because the Euros were inspired in winning their record third consecutive Ryder Cup.
“I don’t know if any European team has played better than you guys in the history of the Ryder Cup,” Lehman said during the closing ceremony.
Woosnam’s captain bona fides were often questioned leading up to the matches. But in the wet and dreary known as autumn in Ireland, Europe was relentless in winning 2½ of the 4 points in every partner session to build a 10-6 lead. Needing only 4½ points to retain the Cup, Woosnam sent Clarke and McGinley out seventh and eighth in what seemed likely to be a decisive stretch of the 12 singles matches.
The atmosphere had been crackling all week despite the rain, and it elevated a notch on Sunday, especially around Clarke, who was admittedly jumpy on the first tee all week: “Coming down the stretch to win the Open Championship (in 2011), that was easy compared to standing on the first tee at the 2006 Ryder Cup. That was the most difficult, most under pressure – I had no idea if I was gonna duff it, top it, shank it.”
“It was like an 80,000-people stadium around 1 tee box … frankly, it was like that on every tee box for him,” Johnson said of his singles experience against the Northern Irishman.
Clarke admitted to scoreboard watching the whole round to see where things stood in relation to his match. “I found it very difficult to not get ahead of myself and keep my emotions in check whenever it was obvious it could come down to my putt,” he said. “I lost myself a few times out there, but I managed to keep on going and do what I had to do.”
Said Zach Johnson: “I could have had my A-plus game and not so sure I could have beat him. The gods were on his side.”
In the celebratory postgame presser with the Europeans already in their cups, it was Lewine Mair who asked Clarke about his emotions that finally spilled out over the 16th green after a week of keeping them mostly bottled up. His answer spoke to the true spirit of the Ryder Cup matches.
“Obviously the emotion was huge, Lewine,” he said. “I’m delighted Woosie chose to give me a pick, along with Lee (Westwood) here. It’s been fantastic to be part of this team. The support I’ve had this week from my teammates on this table, from their wives, from the American team, the American wives, captains, vice captains, everything. The crowd has been very, very touching. It’s meant a lot to me, and to contribute to the team and score some points for the team has been great.”
While Clarke was buoyed by all the support around him, the home crowd weighed a little more heavily on the shoulders of the two Republic members of the team. McGinley (1 point) and Harrington (½) felt the burden of playing a Ryder Cup on home soil for the first time. Their emotions were a little different at the end, particularly for Harrington who would go on to win three majors in the next two years and spark a wave of major successes from the Emerald Isle by Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Clarke and Shane Lowry.
“For me as an Irish person, it was a big deal. So one of the emotions I definitely felt after it was all over is relief that we won it, that we didn’t lose.” – Pádraig Harrington
“I’m actually relieved,” said Harrington when it was over without coming down to him in the anchor match he lost to Scott Verplank. “That would be my biggest emotion now, because I really wanted to win the Ryder Cup in Ireland. I really didn’t want to lose a Ryder Cup in Ireland. It’s the first time it’s here. Who knows when it will be back?
“For me as an Irish person, it was a big deal. So one of the emotions I definitely felt after it was all over is relief that we won it, that we didn’t lose.”
McGinley’s first reaction after he conceded his halve and joined the party, “Did Darren hole the winning putt?” He slumped only slightly when it was reported no, but he wrapped up the week’s central theme with a toast on dais.
“We won by a huge margin. We really thumped them, and I’m very proud of all the rest of the players on the team,” McGinley said before mentioning Heather Clarke. “She would be right in the middle of all this if she was here. And Big D, you’ve been great this week, and we’re so proud of the way you’ve handled everything. And not only that, but the way you’ve played as well.”
There wasn’t a dry eye or palate from Dublin to Portrush after that.
Top: Europe’s Darren Clarke (right) celebrates with Henrik Stenson on the 16th green after winning the 2006 Ryder Cup. Photo: David Davies, PA Images via Getty Images
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