Hats off to the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which finally got under the Europeans’ skin

The U.S. team doffs its cap to Patrick Cantlay (foreground). (Maddie Meyer/PGA of America/PGA of America via Getty Images)

The U.S. team doffs its cap to Patrick Cantlay (foreground). (Maddie Meyer/PGA of America/PGA of America via Getty Images) (Maddie Meyer/PGA of America via Getty Images)

On a Ryder Cup Saturday that featured so many indelible moments — Sam Burns cocking a hand to his mullet-wrapped ear, daring the crowd to boo him; Max Homa pointing out exactly which specific members of the Marco Simone audience needed to shut up; Tommy Fleetwood turning away from a magnificent chip-in with the serene confidence only the baddest of badasses can pull off — the most memorable was the simple waving of a hat on the 18th green as the sun descended and the day ended.

What resulted from that was a chaotic few minutes that included a miraculous session-ending putt, a defiant in-your-face American taunt, and the sport’s best-known active player having to get shoved into a courtesy car … all in the course of what should be a friendly team event.

The Ryder Cup never disappoints.

OK, let’s back up. This is golf we’re talking here, so this story is both intensely complicated and extraordinarily petty, but stick with us: Patrick Cantlay, a member of the United States team, is an extraordinarily good player. Not so good that he’s won a major, mind you, but very good nonetheless.

A report surfaced Saturday that Cantlay would like to be paid for participating in the Ryder Cup — not, in itself, an outrageous request, given that the broadcasters, venues and organizers aren’t also working for free. (Players receive a contribution to their preferred charity, but that’s not really the focus here.)

The report indicated that there was dissension in the United States team room over Cantlay’s desires, and that in protest, he is not wearing a hat. That would seem a damning bit of evidence were it not for the fact that Cantlay often doesn’t wear a hat at Ryder Cup tournaments.

Still, European crowds know a good bit when they read it on their phones, and so by the time Cantlay was making his way through the back nine of the afternoon foursomes round, fans greeted him at every hole with a wave of their hats. If he was in fact protesting the lack of pay by going bareheaded, well, he surely understood the meaning immediately, but if not, he must have been confused as hell.

Not confused enough, it should be pointed out, to get rattled. Cantlay sank crucial putts on 16, 17 and 18 to flip the match from a European victory to an American one. Cantlay is responsible for giving the United States a pulse — faint, yes, but a pulse nonetheless — in this Ryder Cup. Without him, the U.S. would be down by as much as seven points heading into the 12 singles matches; with him, they’re down five, which is still a huge deficit, but not completely unthinkable.

With us so far? OK, good. Cantlay and Wyndham Clark were playing Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick in that match, and when Cantlay made that putt on 18, his caddie Joe LaCava began waving his own hat in mocking celebration. The problem was, McIlroy and Fitzpatrick hadn’t yet finished; they each still had a chance to putt and split the match. But LaCava walked right into McIlroy’s path, which is something that’s simply not done. McIlroy and fellow European Shane Lowry got into a shouting match with LaCava, and clearly the spat continued at the valet.

Rory McIlroy and Joe LaCava exchange points of view. (Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Rory McIlroy and Joe LaCava exchange points of view. (Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images) (Mike Egerton – PA Images via Getty Images)

This is exactly what the sleepwalking United States team needed: a reason to band together against a common enemy. All too often this week, the U.S. has looked overmatched, despondent, beaten … but now, thanks to Cantlay, the Americans can rally as a team. It may be too little, too late, but at least it’s an effort.

After the match, Cantlay insisted that the only reason he didn’t wear a hat is because it didn’t fit him. Asked whether he thinks players should be paid to play in the Ryder Cup, he deflected, saying “It’s not about that. It’s just about Team USA and representing our country … That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

Whether he was looking out for himself or not, Patrick Cantlay ended up — perhaps unintentionally — lighting a fire under his entire team. You’ve got to tip your cap to that.

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