Hat trick? U.S. alive with momentum, motivation

Hat trick? U.S. alive with momentum, motivation
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GUIDONIA MONTCELIO, Italy – With their team thumping the Americans like never before, European Ryder Cup fans already had reason to celebrate.

Then they found their easy target.

Patrick Cantlay.

With his steady play, placid demeanor and measured persona, Cantlay has never engendered much emotion among the sporting public – but that all changed Saturday at Marco Simone.

For two matches and eight hours, they tweaked him about his pace of play: “No rush – the sun is only setting!”

They mocked him over his rumored dalliances with LIV: “You’re a long way from Riyadh!”

But mostly, unmercifully, they heckled him about his missing Team USA hat.

And so now there he was, striding down the 16th fairway. Teaming up with Wyndham Clark, Cantlay was 1 down to Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick in the afternoon fourball session. It was magic hour, sunset less than an hour away. Along the rope line, and by the electronic leaderboard, and from all three levels of the gargantuan hospitality suite, fans removed their hats and whirled them around their heads and sang, en masse, over and over and over again:

Hats offfffff for your bank account!

Hats offfffff for your bank account!

Hats offfffff for your bank account!

WiFi signal at the course had been spotty, but it was clear that the news had traveled all over the property. Midway through the morning foursomes session, Sky Sports reported, citing several unnamed sources, that Cantlay had “fractured” the U.S. team room because of his belief that players should be paid to participate in the sport’s greatest spectacle. Cantlay was demonstrating his frustration, the report said, by declining to wear a hat, even in the official team photos, and refusing to attend the gala dinner earlier this week in Rome.

His silent protest likely would have been rendered a mere footnote had the Americans been playing well. But instead, for the better part of two days, the Ryder Cup had been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for the U.S. team. Rusty stars. Questionable decisions. Late on-course blunders. Combined with a red-hot European team, the visitors trailed by seven points heading into the fourth of five sessions.

But Saturday afternoon had brought a modicum of momentum. Sam Burns redeemed himself after his opening-day struggles. Max Homa, the U.S. MVP so far, saved his best for his fourth consecutive session. And then there was Cantlay, who was essentially going spike-for-spike with McIlroy, one of his chief rivals.

The score may have looked lopsided, but there was still much at stake.

Another full point for the Europeans would give them their largest lead ever (seven points) after Day 2. But if Cantlay could steal a few holes late, he maybe – just maybe – could spark the Americans on their way to a historic comeback, much like Ian Poulter had with a spirited Saturday performance in 2012 at Medinah.

Sensing the importance of the anchor match, the crowd tried to give Cantlay everything he could handle, chanting and cheering and dancing. But he was ready for it. He had prepared himself for it. Walking to the first tee, with the crowd already at full throat, he told Clark that “we were going to use all the energy out there as fuel.” He didn’t grow irritated. In fact, the opposite was true: He turned toward the crowd, acknowledged the chants and – surprisingly – laughed along.

“I’ve never had so many standing ovations going to tee boxes and greens,” he said.

What the fans didn’t realize was that they were actually helping him. They narrowed his focus. They cranked up the intensity. They helped him meet the moment.

“He loves this,” said Cantlay’s swing coach, Jamie Mulligan, who was walking inside the ropes.

First came 16, and Cantlay’s clutch 8-foot birdie to match McIlroy.

Then came 17, and a perfectly flighted, cold-blooded dart, when the other three players in the group all missed the green and anything but a make would have guaranteed a half-point for the Europeans.

Now they were tied, and there was only one way this day and this match could end. After chopping out of a gnarly lie right of the par-5 18th, Cantlay calmly lined up a 43-footer for birdie and buried it – the last of a hat trick of birdies.

Frustrated for two days, his teammates finally let loose. The captain and his assistants raised their arms in triumph. Cantlay pumped his fist and gestured to the crowd by pretending to – what else? – take off his hat.

And the caddies? Well, Cantlay’s looper Joe LaCava whirled his hat around his head, just like the rest of the team, just like the fans had done for the past eight hours. But to the Europeans, at least, LaCava had continued to celebrate for too long, and too close to McIlroy, who was reading his putt to tie.

Finally, McIlroy told LaCava to move out of his eye line, but LaCava didn’t budge much.

McIlroy’s caddie, Harry Diamond, issued a similar directive. He was waved off by LaCava.

That’s when Shane Lowry and Justin Rose barked at LaCava, too.

The commotion eventually settled, but both McIlroy and Fitzpatrick missed their last-ditch attempts to tie. Cantlay had stolen the point, and the cheers of the past hour suddenly turned to boos. The Americans had a chance, now just five points behind, 10.5 to 5.5.

“Better,” Brian Harman said, when asked about the mood. “We aren’t getting our asses kicked quite so bad.”

If Cantlay was looking for a reprieve following the match, he didn’t get it in the press tent.

Despite being seated alongside five of his teammates, Cantlay fielded nearly all of the questions.

He was asked if he believes players should be paid to compete: “It’s not about that. It’s just about Team USA and representing our country.”

He was asked why he chose not to wear a hat this week: “The hat doesn’t fit. It didn’t fit at Whistling Straits, and it didn’t fit this week. Everyone knows that.”

And he was asked about the reported rift in the team room, for which he was apparently to blame.

That prompted a chuckle from his teammates.

“Y’all just don’t quit, do ya?” Harman said. “We love each other, man.”

“Think you’re putting too much into the hat,” Clark said.

“They said it on Twitter, though,” Harman said, “so it has to be true.”

“If it’s on Twitter, it’s true,” Cantlay said, “Verified.”

Later, captain Zach Johnson vehemently denied any team-room dysfunction.

“There is not a rift in this team room,” he said. “This is one of the most united teams I have ever been associated with.”

On the stage, the Americans projected strength and cohesion, confidence and optimism.

“It feels like we have momentum,” Homa said, “and we can go into the locker room laughing a little bit, which just feels good.”

An emotional end to fourballs spilled into a fiery war of words in the parking lot.

On the other side of the clubhouse, the mood was decidedly darker. Approached by another U.S. caddie, this time Jim “Bones” Mackay, McIlroy decided he wasn’t about to forget what had happened on the 18th green.

“That can’t happen! That can’t f—ing happen!” McIlroy yelled while being held back by Lowry. “That’s a f—ing disgrace!”

Lowry pushed McIlroy back into the courtesy car, and off they headed into the night.

Both captains vowed to talk to their respective squads, to make sure the energy is channeled positively for what figures to be another emotional day. It’s easy to imagine Cantlay, feet kicked up in the team room, wearing not a hat but a satisfied smirk.

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