By Mark Lamport-Stokes
MEDINAH, Illinois (Reuters) - As the dust begins to settle after Europe's stunning Ryder Cup 'Miracle at Medinah', one thing is crystal clear - the biennial team competition has never been more vibrant or in better health.
Granted, Davis Love III's deflated American players will need at least a few days to clear heads after their seemingly iron-clad Cup hopes going into Sunday's concluding singles were left in tatters by Europe's astonishing comeback.
Needing eight of the 12 points on offer on the last day at Medinah, Jose Maria Olazabal's inspired men ended up with a staggering eight-and-a-half of them to retain the trophy by 14-1/2 to 13-1/2.
Europe have now won the Ryder Cup seven times in the last nine editions to suggest that the trans-Atlantic showdown, while always hugely anticipated, has become a heavily lop-sided affair.
Yet all this masks the reality of the last three matches between the two teams, which has underlined how close the contests have become.
Four years ago, the U.S. were under pressure to end a losing run dating back to 1999. Under the bold and imaginative captaincy of Paul Azinger, the Americans delivered in style as they beat Europe by 16-1/2 points to 11-1/2 in Kentucky.
Long regarded as lacking the close team bonds that always seemed to be a natural fit for the more passionate Europeans, the U.S. gelled superbly that week in the four-man 'pod' system devised by Azinger.
Though the Americans were beaten in Wales two years ago, the margin of that defeat was wafer-thin (14-1/2 points to 13-1/2) and the visiting team again showed passion and cohesion, especially through Cup rookies such as Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler.
Fast forward to last week at Medinah, and the degree of separation between the teams was widely perceived to be non-existent, with some critics predicting an eventual tie.
BRISTLING IN FIREPOWER
The two lineups bristled with firepower and were the strongest in depth ever seen at a Ryder Cup with long-hitting Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts, the world number 35, the lowest-ranked of the 24 players in action.
On a Medinah layout virtually shorn of rough with lightning-fast greens, the Americans adapted more quickly to the conditions, holing putts in team play when it mattered most to build a commanding 10-6 lead going into the final day.
Sunday's singles then produced one of the most riveting days ever seen in the sport as Europe, with the iconic image of the late Seve Ballesteros on their sleeves and golf bags, started fast and crucially won four of the six matches that ended at the 18th.
American agony contrasted sharply with European ecstasy but Northern Irish world number one Rory McIlroy, who won 2&1 against the previously unbeaten beat Keegan Bradley, saw the bigger picture.
"This is the most special and unique golf tournament we have, period," said the 23-year-old McIlroy, who has now played on two triumphant European teams.
"To bring this group of guys together; to all play for the same cause; we win together, we lose together, and luckily the last two Ryder Cups, we have won together."
The perpetually fist-pumping and high-fiving Bradley, one of four U.S. rookies last week, relished the experience as he won three times in team play with his mentor Phil Mickelson.
"I've never really felt more on a team in my life," said the 26-year-old Bradley. "We are all very close, and it was just such an unbelievable week to share with these guys and the captains.
"It's a week that I'll never forget, and I'm going to be disappointed that we are not going to get together tomorrow to all get ready to play."
The youthful McIlroy and Bradley, both passionate about the game they play for a living, represent Ryder Cup's future. They also underline the close team unity that now clearly exists on both sides of the Atlantic.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)