Oct
4
2010
Team USA Loses Ryder Cup, Gains Respect
By Stephanie Wei under Ryder Cup

Graeme McDowell celebrates after making a clutch birdie on No. 16

What a Ryder Cup! The first Monday finish in the history of the biennial team matches turned into probably one of the most exciting in history. Of course, this was also the first one I’d watched from start to finish, but from what I’ve heard from several colleagues that have attended many, it’s definitely up there. I was blogging over at the WSJ.com (go here to see all the jargon I spewed) and in my last post I sounded very pessimistic even though Rickie Fowler had started his run.

The Americans fought hard and almost staged an unbelievable comeback rivaling Brookline in ’99, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the three-point deficit after the thrashing on Sunday afternoon. Still, the Americans, who have long been criticized for “not caring,” showed their heart and proved the naysayers wrong. Just an hour or two earlier, it looked like it was going to be over before most people made it to work on the East Coast.

Fowler staged a phenomenal comeback against Edoardo Molinari. Down three with four to play, the 21-year-old American made four consecutive birdies and won the last three holes to halve the match.

Fowler drained a 15-footer on 17 to force the match to 18. And then with Molinari safely in the cup for par on 18, Fowler was faced with one of those 20-footers for birdie to win the hole and the crucial half point for the Americans.

Standing on the 14th tee, Fowler saw Tiger Woods drain a 50-footer on the 13th, which was a key moment for Rickie. “The point that I felt like turned around my match was that I saw Tiger make a putt from about 50 feet,” he said. “That gave me extra life. I went on to win the hole with a par. And that kept me moving.”

With Phil Mickelson defeating Peter Hanson and Zach Johnson besting Padraig Harrington — and then Fowler’s half point — suddenly, the Americans had pulled to even with Europe at 13 1/2 points apiece.

Pardon the cliche reference, but to steal a line out of the movie Tin Cup, “When a defining moment comes along, you define the moment… or the moment defines you.” Despite the nerves and immense pressure, Fowler sank the clutch putt that forced the Ryder Cup to the last match on the course, between Hunter Mahan and Graeme McDowell.

McDowell, the reigning US Open champion, looked to be relishing the opportunity to take center stage and controlled the match for its duration. Meanwhile, Mahan struggled to find his rhythm. It was just one of those days that the putts weren’t dropping. Two down with four to play, Mahan made his first birdie of the day on 15 to cut McDowell’s lead to one-up with three to play. But McDowell came up huge with a birdie on 16.

Mahan needed magic on 17 to extend the match, but his tee shot on the par-3 17 came up short, while McDowell was safely on the green. With the weight of the Ryder Cup on his shoulders, Mahan had to chip in, but unfortunately, nerves got to the best of him and he duffed it. That one may hurt for a while, but it wasn’t his fault the team lost (though I’m sure he feels differently).

It was a valiant effort by Mahan and the rest of the US squad. Had Mahan not put up a fight, McDowell could have routed him on the 14th hole and the result would have been the same.

In the US team post-match press conference, Mahan was asked to speak, but he was so distraught that he couldn’t find the words as he choked back tears. Phil Mickelson gracefully stepped in to answer the question and put a comforting arm around his teammate. Several minutes later, another reporter asked Mahan something else. “I’ve played with Graeme before, I don’t even know what day it was,” he said. “But he didn’t miss a shot. He played great today, didn’t miss a shot…”

And then he rambled on before breaking down in tears. It was disheartening to watch (I even started tearing up).

His teammates spoke in Mahan’s defense, acknowledging they all contributed in the defeat. “We can all think about a shot here and there that could have turned the match to make up that one point,” said Steve Stricker. “You hate to see Hunter go through what he’s going through because it really shouldn’t come down to that. But, unfortunately, it did.”

A passionate Stewart Cink eloquently made a great point.

“If you go up and down the line of the tour players in Europe and the U.S. and asked them if they would like to be the last guy to decide the Ryder Cup, probably less than half would say they would like to be that guy and probably less than 10 percent of them would mean it,” Cink said.

“Hunter Mahan put himself in that position today. He was the man on our team, to put himself in that position. Hunter Mahan performed like a champ out there today. I think it’s awesome. Not many players would do that.”

And not to get all cheesy, but these emotional responses only come out of the Ryder Cup — just like the incredible shots that players pull off. It was a winning moment to see Mahan’s teammates back him up. Even Tiger seemed emotional — well, more than we usually see from him.

The Americans put up a great fight, not to mention bigger than expected, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to thwart Europe’s passionate effort, particularly the Sunday afternoon thrashing. Congrats on a fantastic win, Europe. See you in two years.

[Photo by European Pressphoto Agency]