The tense moments after hatless Patrick Cantlay electrified the Ryder Cup
ROME — The ball fell into the hole and Patrick Cantlay’s voice knifed through the air like a cruise missile.
It was Saturday night at the Ryder Cup, and Cantlay had just breathed life into the Americans, ironically, by sucking the air out of the whole place.
The first noise that followed Cantlay’s birdie on the 18th was his scream — a primal yell that echoed around the seating horseshoeing the 18th. The second was silence, the kind one only finds at a sporting event when a crowd’s voice has been stolen.
The silencer was Cantlay, hatless for all the world to see, the subject of a report just hours earlier alleging a “fracture” on the U.S. roster. The reason for the fracture, the report said, was Cantlay’s desire to be paid for his participation in the Cup — a protest he carried out by refusing to wear a hat (Cantlay later denied the report, saying simply the hat didn’t fit). Word of this report spread quickly throughout Marco Simone, and by the time Cantlay made the turn for home he’d found himself surrounded by thousands of fans waving their caps in mock support.
There were hats waving again when Cantlay’s birdie putt dropped on the 18th, silencing the European crowd and stunning his opponents Matt Fitzpatrick and Rory McIlroy. This time they belonged to Cantlay’s Ryder Cup teammates — Collin Morikawa, Max Homa, Justin Thomas and assistant captain Fred Couples among them — who had suddenly seized a slice of momentum large enough to feel.
For the first time since the first balls had gone in the air on Friday, the Americans had a tangible piece of hope. But the celebration lasted only seconds until it was nearly interrupted by a fistfight.
The first offender was Cantlay’s caddie Joe LaCava, who had been the first American to rip his hat from his head in celebration. He stood at the center of the green for a few long seconds after Cantlay’s putt sunk, waving back toward the Americans on the far side of the green. Normally that wouldn’t have been an issue, but McIlroy was surveying a birdie putt of his own roughly five feet to LaCava’s right to halve the match.
McIlroy stood up awkwardly, appearing to share some choice words with LaCava about his position on the green, who turned away. Back behind the green, Euro teammate Shane Lowry exploded on his behalf, screaming for LaCava to get out of McIlroy’s way.
“Shut the f–k up, Shane,” LaCava yelled back, a retort that only elicited further screaming.
A few seconds later, McIlroy’s putt missed. The Americans had officially won the match, but Rory was still furious. He jawed with his caddie, Harry Diamond, who started yelling at LaCava, bringing both teams together for a tense few seconds of close proximity shouting.
Rory appeared to be circling for a second go at LaCava in the middle of this when he was suddenly stopped by Jon Rahm, who bear-hugged McIlroy away from the action, pleading with him to simmer.
The Europeans escaped from the 18th green as quickly as they’d arrived, charging back through the ropeline and toward the clubhouse. As they disappeared toward the team room, they could be heard yelling about LaCava’s apparent lack of situational awareness.
Back on the green, the chaos had cooled into euphoria. An American celebration was underway in earnest — and LaCava was at the center of it.
The scene happened too fast — and too chaotically — to say who was at fault for the situation that nearly led to our first Ryder Cup brawl (we can be thankful to mediators like Bones Mackay for keeping the number of Ryder Cup fights at zero). But it is not hard to say what the scene meant to the Cup, which ended a lifeless two days with one of the hottest moments in tournament history.
Speaking of the tournament, the victory couldn’t have been more important for the Americans. The U.S. had needed a dominant fourth and final team play session just to entertain the possibility of a Sunday comeback. Cantlay’s win alongside teammate Wyndham Clark represented the crucial third point for the U.S. in the afternoon session, moving the tally to 10.5-5.5 Europe. More importantly, though, it represented the kind of crowd-silencing uppercut the Americans had failed to deliver over and over again over the first two days of play at Marco Simone, where the Europeans looked well on their way to one of the most dominant wins in recent memory … until Cantlay strolled down 18.
Of course, the Euros are still in the driver’s seat, clinging to a five-point lead and needing just four match victories in Sunday singles in order to clinch the Cup. The Americans, on the other hand, will need 8.5 out of a possible 12 points on Sunday to retain — an effort that would represent the largest Sunday comeback in Ryder Cup history. Twice before we’ve seen Ryder Cup teams mount significant comebacks in singles play, first in Brookline in 1999 and again in Medinah in 2012, but nothing quite like this.
Yes, it would be stunning if the Americans pulled off the upset on Sunday afternoon in Rome. But it wouldn’t be any more stunning than the controversy that enveloped Ryder Cup Saturday — the one about the golfer without a hat.
The totality of the moment was obvious to everyone a few minutes after both teams disappeared into the night. From just off the 18th green, one European team family member said it perfectly.
“F–k,” he said. “The door didn’t shut.”