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GLENEAGLES, Scotland – At the back of the first tee, hemmed in on three sides by a crowd incandescent with eagerness despite the ungodly hour and early morning Scottish chill, a young and frightened deer bounded over a fence and scurried past the tunnel through which the Ryder Cup players march toward their dates with destiny.
The deer need not have been so afraid. Because the quarry on this opening day of golf's deliverer of dramas was Ian Poulter. Only, at this point, it still hadn't dawned on Europe's most consistent hunter of Ryder Cup points that he was about to become the hunted.
Strutting, as he does, like a sergeant major, back ramrod straight, Poulter paused momentarily in the tunnel to high-five a photo of Seve Ballesteros. Poulter, as the Spaniard used to, feeds off the energy of the Ryder Cup, the team togetherness, the trans-Atlantic rivalry that coaxes such emotion from players and fans alike.
But, this time, Poulter's passion and the insider Gleneagles knowledge of his Scottish fourballs partner Stephen Gallacher proved no match for steady iron shots and putting from Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, the youngest-ever U.S. pairing but mature beyond their combined 45 years.
Although bagging Poulter still only earned one point for U.S. captain Tom Watson's team, it felt like two. Poulter was Europe's leading points scorer at the last three Ryder Cups, so reliable that he became known as "The Postman" because he always delivered.
This time, not only did the postman not ring twice, he got mauled and chased out of the yard by a pair of voracious pups.
"He's known as being kind of the Ryder Cup wizard for the Europeans," said Spieth, at 21 years and 61 days the youngest American to have played the Ryder Cup since Horton Smith in 1929. "Everybody on the team wants Poulter and we were able to have him first."
Credit goes to Watson. All week, from less-than-welcoming quarters of the Gleneagles press corps, the 65-year-old has fielded questions suggesting he is too old and out of touch with players who weren't even born when the winner of eight majors was in his heyday.
But by pairing Spieth and 24-year-old Reed, both Ryder Cup first-timers, and putting them out together in the intense spotlight of the first morning of play, Watson placed great trust and faith in the resilience, strength and fearlessness of youth. That isn't the mark of a captain who is over the hill, but of one who correctly judged what his young charges were capable of. By taking the risk that they might drown together in their first plunge into Ryder Cup, Watson instead earned the reward of two players who can now stick Poulter's face on their trophy wall and say to themselves, "We belong here."
"I could barely breathe on the first tee," said Reed. "They call your name out and you put that peg in the ground; I was the first one to hit; I didn't know if I could pull it back."
"A really, really cool experience, one we won't forget: The cheers, the songs, everything," added Spieth.
But even sweeter was the sound of depressed silence that settled over the home crowd as the U.S. pair put and then kept their feet on the Europeans' necks. In tossing Spieth and Reed in at the deep end, Watson told them: "I'm going to throw you in the ocean without a life preserver. You're on your own." They proved to be sharks. They won holes 1, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 11, but both teed into sand on 12, which Gallacher won.
This 5 and 4 humbling was Poulter's heaviest Ryder Cup defeat and his first in eight matches. It was Poulter who restored a pulse to Europe in 2012, with birdies on the last five holes Saturday afternoon that gave his team a fighting chance which it seized so famously Sunday to win with a record-tying recovery.
This time, it was Poulter's golf that needed the kiss of life.
"Walking along, singing a song, walking in a Poulter wonderland," sang the crowd after he emerged from the tunnel to the first tee with his clenched right fist raised like Rocky.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
The bravado quickly gave way to dismal shot-making. On 12, he laughed at himself as his tee shot sailed into sand. His second shot from the fairway on nine ricocheted not once but twice as it splashed into the drink. He bogeyed the first, lipping out a short putt, and never made a birdie.
Poulter's heroics at Medinah in 2012 help explain why Paul McGinley used one of his captain's wild cards to bring back the 38-year-old Englishman. But, in the hindsight of this myth-puncturing morning at Gleneagles, it now looks like McGinley was either naïve or overly nostalgic in believing that Poulter can weave miracles every time. By putting Poulter out there on the first morning, when lacking both his best golf and the visible, eye-bulging passion that has been his hallmark in the past, McGinley all but gifted an early psychological boost to his U.S. rivals.
Poulter, of course, sought to minimalize the importance of the loss.
"This is a team game and they have to beat 12 of us. It's not just about singling one or two guys out," he said.
Europe winning again on Sunday will make this defeat nothing more than a historical footnote, a simple blot on Poulter's otherwise still impressive record of 16 matches played, won 12, now lost 4.
But, if the U.S. wins, having Poulter's head on top of the golden trophy will make it look even better for Watson's team.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester