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Tad Reeve column: US has its chance to wrest Cup from Europe

CHASKA, Minn. — So, what’s it going to be: 1999 or 2012?

There are ups and downs, peaks and valleys, good moments and bad in every Ryder Cup. But you usually have a pretty good handle on who will win after two days of foursomes and four-ball matches.

Team USA is ready to put its fingerprints all over the 17-inch tall, 4-pound Ryder Cup trophy and wrest it from its six-year stay in Europe after taking a 9½ to 6½ lead Saturday at Hazeltine National Golf Club.

Of course, everyone similarly thought the Ryder Cup was a done deal before singles even started in 1999 and 2008. Those turned out to be the U.S.’s best (’99) and worst (’08) moments ever in this event. More on that monumental comeback/collapse in a bit.

This time, the U.S. can (should?) end Europe’s stranglehold on the Cup just by showing up for today’s 12 singles matches. Win five of the 12, and it’s over. On paper, the Americans have a deep enough roster to take advantage of the Europeans’ lack of experience in the bottom half of their lineup.

Europe has six Ryder Cup rookies who have never experienced anything like what they will go through this afternoon. But four of them have held up well through the first two days: Thomas Pieters looks like a rising star, and Rafa Cabrera Bello, Chris Wood and Danny Willett don’t seem bothered by the boisterous, sometimes-

hostile crowd at Hazeltine.

Only Matt Fitzpatrick and Andy Sullivan appear to be gasping for breath, and European captain Darren Clarke has limited them to one match in two days. That can’t be good.

But anything — anything — can happen in an 18-hole match. Tiger Woods, the best player in several generations, was routed in his first Ryder Cup singles match, losing 4-and-2 in 1997 to Costantino Rocca, a middling player from Italy. Jack Nicklaus, the best player ever, lost to a guy named Brian Barnes in 1975. Twice. In the same day.

Phil Mickelson is the only U.S. player who has won more than two Ryder Cup matches in his life, and with a 5-5-1 record, he’s lost as many matches as he’s won. Zach Johnson and Dustin Johnson have won twice. Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Brandt Snedeker and rookies Ryan Moore and Brooks Koepka have never won.

So, experience be damned. It’s about who plays the best golf that day. And you never know who that’s going to be.

Team USA has been on both ends of the biggest comebacks ever, and it’s hard to forget either.

Trailing 10-6 in 1999, the U.S won 8½ of 12 singles points for a 14½ to 13½ victory at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., when Justin Leonard drained a 45-foot birdie putt, then watched the whole American team (plus wives) trample the 17th green in wild celebration.

Four points down, U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw met with the media late Saturday, wagged his finger at reporters and said, “I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this. That’s all I’m gonna say.”

Good times.

Maybe that’s why it was so painful to watch the Europeans pull the same trick in 2012, Davis Love III’s first go-round as U.S. captain.

The U.S. led 10-4 before folding in Saturday afternoon’s final two four-ball matches. Their collapse in Sunday’s singles was even more horrific, and they lost back-nine leads in each of the final three matches to bow by one point. It got so quiet at Medinah in that final hour, you could hear crickets chirping.

Mickelson is the only current member of Team USA who was on that 1999 team. But five players had a role in that 2012 debacle: Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Zack Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker.

That meltdown will be on their minds today. You’ve got to think they’ll do everything in their power to prevent a repeat performance. And, as we’ve seen, it ain’t over till it’s over.

“The job at hand is to try to win all 12 matches tomorrow,” said Willett, who lost 1-up to J.B. Holmes and Ryan Moore in an afternoon four-ball match Saturday when partner Lee Westwood missed a 3-foot putt on the final hole. “Looking at the score line, no one is at 14½, so there’s a long way to go.”

Tad Reeve is the St. Paul Pioneer Press sports editor.