This was the sort of Ryder Cup that can define a career.
There’s Graeme McDowell, coming off his first major championship just four months earlier in the U.S. Open, feeling the sort of gut-wrenching pressure he’s never known before -- not even at Pebble Beach. He overcame it with the putt of a lifetime.
There’s Rickie Fowler, the bushy-haired 21-year-old, making birdies on the last four holes to halve a match the Americans had to have for any chance of pulling off an improbable comeback against Europe. Not bad for a rookie just a year removed from Q-School.
And, of course, there’s Hunter Mahan, who hopes this won’t be the lasting impression of his career, a mano-a-mano for the ages with McDowell in the very last match of a Ryder Cup that went to extra time at Celtic Manor.
Mahan knew a tie would be good enough to bring the gold chalice back to America. But he flubbed the chip shot and watched it slip away.
“It’s going to sting,” said Davis Love III, an assistant captain of the U.S. team. “It’s going to sting for a while.”
For McDowell and the Europeans, there was nothing but joy -- and a big whew! They regained the cup by the narrowest of margins, 14 ½ - 13 1/2, and it really felt even closer than that.
“I’ve never felt nerves like that in my life,” McDowell said. “I was really nervous over every shot.”
The Americans started the day with a daunting three-point deficit, having been blown away in the final team session by the Europeans. But the U.S. almost always thrives at singles and, after a sluggish start, red started popping up all over the scoreboard.
Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson won for the first time all week. Tiger Woods romped to victory with the sort of inspired play that’s been missing since the extramarital escapades were exposed and his marriage fell apart. Steve Stricker knocked off Europe’s best player, Lee Westwood.
Still, the comeback appeared to run out of steam when Fowler barely escaped elimination at No. 15 but still trailed Edoardo Molinari by three holes. The young American had to win them all to pull out a half-point, and that’s just what he did with one of the greatest clutch performances in Ryder Cup history.
A conceded birdie at 16 was the easy part. Fowler rolled in a make-or-break 15-footer at the 17th to take the match to the final hole. That’s where he pulled off his last bit of magic, pitching over the water to 18 feet and making the sort of nervy putt that most guys won’t face in their lifetimes.
“He’s going to play in a lot of Ryder Cups in the future,” said U.S. Captain Corey Pavin, who used one of his four wild-card picks to select Fowler. “It’s a very strong, emotional week that has emotions all over the spectrum. I think Rickie is a player who can handle that. … An incredible performance.”
Back at the 15th hole, Mahan had just made birdie to reduce McDowell’s lead in the final match to 1 up. After Fowler’s half-point went up on the board, the score was 13 1/2 - 13 1/2. The Americans merely needed a push out of the final match, because a tie goes to the defending champion.
“It just so happened that it came down to me,” McDowell said. “I didn’t want it to come down to me, that’s for sure.”
If he was feeling a bit queasy, it sure didn’t show. He struck a soaring second shot at the 16th, one of the toughest holes on the course, that plopped down just 15 feet from the flag. Still left with a tricky downhill putt that he knew could easily slide by the cup and keep on rolling.
The line and the speed had to be just right.
“The greatest second shot and the greatest putt I’ve ever hit in my career,” McDowell said.
The lead went to 2 up, and Mahan had to win the final two holes to pull out the match -- and the cup. But he got up under his tee shot at the par-3 17th, leaving it short of the green. What followed was the sort of shot one might expect to see at the muni. Trying to hole out, he didn’t even reach the green.
When Mahan missed with a putt from off the front of the green, he didn’t even bother making McDowell putt. The two men shook hands, and the European celebration was on. Champagne, cigars and plenty of “Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!”
The elation was easy to see. So was the dejection, written all over Mahan’s face as he bit his lip, tried futilely to hold back tears and struggled to get words out.
Call it the yin and yang of Ryder Cup.
Two years ago, Mahan was one of the stars of the U.S. victory at Valhalla, where as a rookie he didn’t lose a match and knocked in a key 60-foot birdie putt on the decisive final day. Now he knows what it feels like to have it all snatched away.
“That’s what the Ryder Cup gives you. It gives you moments like that,” Mahan said. “I know it will make me a better player, because there’s not a scenario where I’ll ever see that again, I don’t think.”
If nothing else, the Americans showed they do care deeply about Samuel Ryder’s gold trophy.
Everyone was hurting, not just Mahan.
“We put a lot of heart and energy into this event,” Mickelson said. “We really believed all week we were going to win. We didn’t just talk about it, but we really believed that we were going to prevail. Even heading into (Monday), when we were down, we just knew we were going to win.”
In retrospect, they had too much ground to make up. The Americans actually lost the cup on Sunday, when Europe nearly pulled off a clean sweep of the team matches, winning five of them and halving the other. Europe took a 9 1/2 - 6 1/2 lead in the first Monday finish in the event’s 83-year-history, a necessity after torrential rains flooded the place and caused two long delays.
The final day in the lush Wales countryside broke sunny and warm, allowing Colin Montgomerie to display that very long shadow he cast over the European team as its captain. He had a hand in everything from motivational speeches to trivia games in the team room to fiddling with the scoreboards.
And when it was done, his team had just enough points.
“This meant an awful lot to me,” said Monty, one of Europe’s greatest Ryder Cup players. “I have a reasonable playing record in this competition, but I never had a winning record as a captain. You only have one go at it.”
Yep, this was the sort of Ryder Cup that can make careers -- even for those who didn’t swing a club.