Can Ian Poulter's sizzling play power Europe to an upset?

Ross Kinnaird - Getty Images

The United States is on the verge of winning the Ryder Cup on Sunday, but can Ian Poulter lead the Europeans to a Sunday upset?

When Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson wiped the fairways with Luke Donald and Lee Westwood to the tune of 7 and 6 in Saturday morning’s foursomes match, the U.S. power duo tied the largest margin of victory in team competition.

And then U.S. captain Davis Love III sat the thermonuclear American pair and watched as England’s Ian Poulter single-handedly brought Europe’s Ryder Cup hopes back from the dead with an out-of-body performance that even had partner Rory McIlroy shaking his head in joyous disbelief.

Love’s unit heads into Sunday’s finale with a seemingly insurmountable 10-6 lead. But Poulter’s crazy-eyed intensity (not to mention five straight birdies to close out his afternoon round) had the Euros talking miracle comeback like they believed they could actually pull one off.

The tectonic shift in momentum also had to have the home team privately recalling their own magical resurrection in Brookline in 1999, when they started Sunday down by the same four points.

“It’s given us a heartbeat for tomorrow,” Donald, who followed up his morning defeat to help Sergio Garcia down Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, 1-up, told reporters after Poulter’s final birdie of the day beat Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson by the same score. “It’s nice to leave tonight with the momentum that we will carry tomorrow. Seeing those putts go in has certainly given us a lift.”

No question, the visitors have a steep hill to climb to accomplish such a rebound on foreign soil, and they must chalk up eight points to complete the upset. But to retain the cup, they need only tie the Americans, who put themselves on the verge of only their third win in the past eight outings, despite Woods going 0-3 and suffering his fifth straight loss with Stricker in team play.

Indeed, take only 4.5 points of the 12 in Sunday’s singles matches, and the Love squad can start sipping the champagne. But Poulter’s stretch run, which capped off two bounce-backs from sure defeats for his men, breathed new life into Europe’s moribund Ryder Cup hopes, and almost pushed the remarkable Bradley/Mickelson feat off the front page.

Almost, but not quite.

Golf’s new “It” couple (Woods-McIlroy are so last week that golf fans were pleased that No. 1 would face Bradley, not his recent BFF, in the must-see singles match-up on Sunday) followed up their monumental first day of teamwork with an almost unparalleled performance Saturday morning.

Alternating shots, they birdied the first six of 10 holes and stood at 3-0 for the tourney after closing out Donald and Lee Westwood on the 12th hole. They chalked up that W after dispatching McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, 2 and 1, on Friday afternoon, and made everyone forget that just days before there had been a groundswell of support for a Woods-McIlroy rematch on Sunday.

Both players said they backed their captain’s decision to bench them until Sunday’s finale, and, with Bubba Watson/Webb Simpson clocking Justin Rose/Francesco Molinari, 5 and 4, and Dustin Johnson/Matt Kuchar chipping in with a 1-up win over Nicolas Colsaerts/Paul Lawrie, the plan should work out just fine.

"Historically and mathematically, guys that have played five matches have not done so well in singles and we want to make sure we’re rested and focused," Mickelson told reporters before Love announced his Saturday afternoon pairings. "We've got a lot of guys on this team that are playing some great golf who need to get out and play as well, and don't be surprised if we end up not playing because we don't want to risk two points for one.”

But there was just a hint of wondering, with the young New Englander infusing his mentor with such energy and enthusiasm, whether the United States’ marquee ball-strikers could have delayed their scheduled nap time to keep one of the best pairings in the annals of the Ryder Cup together for just one more afternoon.

As a Golf Channel analyst noted Saturday night, the move smacked of taking your pitcher out in the sixth inning of a perfect game. And for Saturday night, at least, the hole in the U.S. lineup gave the Euros a glimmer of hope that they could accomplish what their U.S. counterparts did 12 years ago when they shocked Jose Maria Olazabal, et al, with their stunning comeback at The Country Club.

“Those two points in [his, and Garcia/Donald-Woods/Stricker matches] might be what we need tomorrow to go out there and do what happened in Brookline,” said Poulter, whose birdie barrage began on the par-5 14th and kept him and McIlroy from falling to 2-down. “It’s pretty fun, this Ryder Cup.”

European captain Olazabal, the golfer who could only stand and watch as Justin Leonard’s putt for the ages found the bottom of the cup, knows that miracles can happen.

"It's not over until it's over," he said. "There is 12 matches to be played tomorrow. Of course we have a tough task ahead, but it's not over; as simple as that."

With their record-tying victory romp, by the way, Bradley and Mickelson now share the honors with Hale Irwin and Tom Kite in 1979 and Paul Azinger and Mark O’Meara in 1991.

Another potential historical footnote that bears watching: a Tiger Woods defeat in Sunday’s singles play would match Mickelson’s record for the most losses by an American in Ryder Cup play (unless Lefty bows to Rose on Sunday). Golf’s second-ranked player is 4-1-1 in singles and will be coming off his own furious birdie parade (four in his last six holes) in Saturday afternoon’s deflating loss.

Woods, who, notably, will bring up the rear in the last twosome of the day, also bested Molinari, 4 and 3, two years ago in their singles contest. Did Love slate him in at the end because he sensed the team may need his point to win? Perhaps he wanted to take the pressure off a guy who used to squash rivals in such brain-freezing situations and give Woods his best chance to avoid an 0-fer. Or maybe Woods’ forlorn record in the first two days relegated him to an afterthought as the team’s mop-up guy.

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