RYDER CUP: Donald’s fast start was the key to Europe’s comeback

Luke Donald did his job perfectly for Team Europe on Sunday.

With his team trailing 10-6, captain Jose Maria Olazabal sent former world No. 1 and Northwestern alum Donald out first in Sunday’s singles in hopes of building some quick momentum for his team.

Donald didn’t disappoint. His opponent, long-hitting Bubba Watson, had been a momentum generated for the U.S. the first two days of the 39th Ryder Cup, but not on Sunday. Donald won Nos. 2, 4 and 11 with birdies and No. 12 with a par to go 4-up.

Watson got two holes back with birdies at the 15th and 16th, one with a chip-in, before Donald closed him out with a sand save par at the 17th for a 2 and 1 win. That stage for Europeans’ epic comeback.

“It was a big honor for me that Ollie (Olazabal) had enough trust in me to go out and get that first point for Europe,’’ said Donald. “I did what I had to do.’’

This Ryder Cup, Donald’s fourth, was a strange one. His first two matches, in foursomes, were blowout losses. One ended on the 12th hole the other on the 15th.

Just a few minutes after the second loss things got better in a hurry. Donald, teaming with Sergio Garcia, put up a 1-up victory over Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker – the first indication that Team Europe wasn’t dead even before a singles match was played.

Prior to the competition Donald was hopeful that his popularity in Chicago would at least partially defuse crowd partisanship for the Americans. At least he was not quite viewed as the enemy throughout.

“It certainly helped having some local support,’’ said Donald. “I felt a lot of love from the crowd, and it was just a feeling of relief when the game was over. Bubba pushed me hard at the end.’’

It was Donald’s job to set a positive tone for his team after a largely dismal first two days.

“Our spirits were low halfway through the afternoon (on Saturday), and when we won those last two matches we really had a pep in our step. We still had an opportunity to make history. We felt that Seve (the late Seve Ballesteros) was watching down on us.’’

Ballesteros played his last Ryder Cup match in 1995 and captained a winning European team in 1997, so Donald was never his teammate, but all the Euros used golf bags emblazoned with Ballesteros’ likeness.

Donald’s unique position as a hometown player competing for the visiting team produced only mediocre results. Point-wise it was his worst Ryder Cup. Donald made his first Ryder Cup team as a captain’s pick in 2004 and went 2-1-1. He was more successful in the next two, going 3-0-0 in 2006 and 3-1-0 in 2010. He didn’t play in 2008.

In his four Ryder Cups Donald played two on American soil and two in Europe.

“It’s always tough to play away from home in a Ryder Cup, but I actually felt somewhat loved this week – even though I was playing for the Euros. It was nice to hear all the cheers.’’