Putt points way to redemption

 

GOLF: Philip Reid finds Paul McGinley still revelling in the after-glow of his Ryder Cup-winning putt, a shot that redeemed a most difficult year

The main dining area in the clubhouse at Valderrama is mightily impressive. It is quintessentially Spanish, with white walls - suitably adorned with golfing memorabilia - and stone tiles. Quite simply, it oozes opulence. It was here on a Thursday night in mid-November, after the first round of the Volvo Masters, that Padraig Harrington found himself in a lively dinner debate with a number of PGA European Tour officials who had inside information on the shot that would be deemed to be the tour's "Shot of the Year". From their demeanour, the Dubliner gathered it wasn't the one he would have selected.

In his mind, Harrington had no doubt who deserved the accolade. It was Paul McGinley's putt on the 18th green at The Belfry, the one that won the Ryder Cup for Europe.

"It's not because he is Irish, or my friend, it's because it is the shot that was most important for European golf this year. It was huge," insisted Harrington.

As events transpired, the bunker shot executed by Ernie Els from a greenside bunker on the 13th at Muirfield in the final round of the British Open, as the South African finally got his hands on the Claret Jug, was deemed the season's best.

And yet, the year's abiding memory is of McGinley. Of him floating in the murky water of the lake in the heart of old England with an Irish tricolour wrapped around his shoulders and the cold water seeping into every pore of his skin. It was the moment that encapsulated Europe's win in golf's most pressurised cauldron, and of how, as Sam Torrance would observe later, "out of the shadows, come heroes".

McGinley, the hero, was soaked to his skin, with muscles honed in the gym bulging under the pale top that stuck to him, but his face bore the grin that can only belong to someone enjoying his finest hour. This was his time.

Not only that, but it was Europe's finest moment too. A year later than originally scheduled, the 34th Ryder Cup match took place on a Brabazon course that, in its short existence, has become inextricably linked to the event. And, again, it was a time for an Irish hero. Just as 13 years previously Christy O'Connor Junior had etched his name into the history books with a two-iron approach over water to the course's final green, so too did McGinley. Only, in his case, he used the most used club in a golfer's bag - the putter - to claim his rightful place.

For much of the season, McGinley endured a torrid time. In qualifying for the team the previous year, his biggest trait was his consistency. But throughout the 2002 season, the only consistency was his inconsistency. He struggled with his swing and, consequently, his results, like many other members of the European team, dipped alarmingly.

Once they assembled at The Belfry, though, the traditional European spirit surfaced and, going into the final day's singles, they trailed the Americans by just one point. It was all to play for.

That morning at breakfast, the four rookies on the team broke bread together. In a risky play, captain Torrance had decided to send out all his heavyweights at the front. The rearguard action would be fought by the rookies; and, over breakfast, one of them, Niclas Fasth, remarked, "One of us is probably going to be a hero."

All day, McGinley had battled to stay in touch with his opponent Jim Furyk. The Irishman was never ahead. Walking onto the 17th green, he still trailed, but he holed a 12-foot birdie putt to tie up the match . . . and McGinley's place in history beckoned. Throughout that battle, he will tell you he was on "autopilot", so that he wouldn't get ahead of himself, so that he could stay focused.

Even now, the memory of what happened on the 18th creeps back into his mind. "It's still very, very strong. I'll never forget it," insists McGinley. "At the time, I didn't soak up the atmosphere as much as I would have liked. I was afraid it would eat up my energy and my experience told me that I had to stay focused. I still had a job to do."

Both Furyk and McGinley failed to find the green with their approach shots. The American found the bunker on the left, the Irishman - hitting a three-iron in to a left-to-right wind - missed the green, the ball finishing in the rough to the left of the putting surface.

In singles play that day, eight players were required to hit approach shots to the 18th green. None of them managed to find the green. On his walk to the green, McGinley looked at the crowds and listened to them and knew that his match was vital.

Players and caddies and wives and officials were all crouched around it and Torrance, walking up to McGinley, confirmed what the player already suspected. "Do it for me," said Sam, and McGinley simply nodded.

The main difficulty of the chip that McGinley faced was that he had to come across a tier, but he managed to complete his first task, getting the ball safely onto the putting surface. Some measured the distance at eight feet, others felt it was more like 11 feet. "All I know," said McGinley, "is that it was three good sized steps, so it was at least eight feet."

Furyk nearly spoiled the party, almost holing his bunker shot - a la Paul Azinger in the previous match - but the ball didn't drop. It was McGinley's moment of truth. Nobody else could take the putt, and the experience of all the years spent playing for his livelihood on the golf courses of the world was about to be called upon. Only this time, it wasn't for money; it was for Europe.

His caddie, JP Fitzgerald, clutched the flagstick and was talking. McGinley was listening and not listening as JP told him he knew this putt. "You had it last year in the B&H. The very same one," Fitzgerald told him on that famous autumnal afternoon in September. Now, more than ever, his caddie's words are vividly clear.

"It felt to me like JP said the same thing about 50 times, although I know it was only twice or three times. It's just that I didn't say anything to him until, finally, I said, 'yes, I know, I know, I remember'," recalled McGinley.

"I knew the putt and knew the line, so it was a case of going into my routine. I had two looks at the hole, and hit as pure a putt as I have ever hit. It was one of those putts that everyone experiences at some time, where the ball comes right out of the middle of the putter. It had a soft feel, almost as if I hadn't hit it at all."

Of course, the ball dropped into the hole; and all hell broke lose.

"It was brilliant to have the opportunity to do it, to sink the winning putt in the Ryder Cup. Not only was it brilliant to have the opportunity, but it was brilliant to go ahead and do it. I had a disappointing year personally, but no way can I look back on the year and be disappointed.

"Doing what I did in the Ryder Cup gave me an identity as a player. I stood up to the highest pressure and managed to come through it. I'm already looking forward to the Ryder Cup in Detroit in 2004. Once you get a taste of what it is about, you just want more of it."