NEWPORT Wales – Many will remember Fancourt in South Africa in 2003, when Tiger Woods and Ernie Els faced off in an incredible, intense playoff with darkness setting in, each man playing for 11 teammates and trying to win a team event. No one who was there ever will forget it.
That was the Presidents Cup, a nice little fledgling get-together between friends that has evolved into a fine competition. But it isn’t the blood-and-guts Ryder Cup. And the whole world wasn’t watching. After Woods and Els played three holes and the match was declared a draw, the powers-that-be huddled and decided to do away with the format.
Why? It was decided it was simply too much pressure for two men to shoulder.
Try, then, to imagine what was churning inside Hunter Mahan and Graeme McDowell at Celtic Manor in Wales, two lone rising stars left battling on a glorious Monday afternoon when blue skies and sun finally muscled through the clouds.
It had been nearly 20 years since two men were left on a golf course with the tremendous weight of the Ryder Cup hanging in the balance. At Kiawah Island along the coast of South Carolina 1991, it was Europe’s Bernhard Langer standing on that final green, playing Hale Irwin. When Langer’s 6-foot putt lipped out, victory belonged to the home team. The visitors were left heartbroken.
Mahan, 28, went undefeated in his first Ryder Cup two years ago in Kentucky. When U.S. captain Corey Pavin asked him if he had any objections to playing in the anchor spot at Celtic Manor, Mahan said he was fine with it. He relished the opportunity to step beneath such a bright spotlight. This time, it didn’t work out. Northern Ireland’s McDowell, a gritty competitor in his own right, drained a 15-footer at the 16th hole to take a 2-up lead, then secured the winning point for Europe when Mahan made bogey at 17. McDowell won, 3 and 1, to give Europe a 14 1/2 to 13 1/2 triumph and the cup.
The result had an immediate and significant impact on both players involved. McDowell, the U.S. Open champion, was the hero, thrust into the middle of a raucous Euro party on the 17th green. (“As they say,” said the classy Ulsterman, smiling, “if you can’t handle the celebration, then don’t score the goal. It was pretty nuts.”)
For Mahan, he was so spent emotionally that tears welled in his eyes and words could not emerge from his mouth as he sat beside his 11 teammates and captain. He choked up on a couple of occasions. It was clear how much the moment had meant to him, and how much he’d wanted to come through for his team.
That’s OK. In Mahan’s silence, his teammates stepped up and spoke volumes for him.
“If you go up-and-down the line of the Tour players in Europe and U.S. and asked them if you 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,” said Stewart Cink, speaking inside a media session with the U.S. team that brimmed with great emotion. “Hunter Mahan put himself in that position today. He was the man on our team to put himself in that position, all right?”
Applause filled the room. Cink went on to articulate that playing 12th in a 12-man singles lineup is a selfish spot in what can very much be a selfish game, “and Hunter Mahan performed like a champ out there today. And I think it’s awesome. Not many players would want to do that.”
Several U.S. team members, from Phil Mickelson to Jim Furyk to Steve Stricker, went on to emphasize that though Mahan was in the deciding match, he by no means lost the Ryder Cup for the U.S. side. There were 28 points up for grabs through the week at Celtic Manor, and only one for the last match. Though he did not make his first birdie until the 15th hole, Mahan also didn’t drop a shot the entire day, making for a very good tussle.
“We can all look back and we can all think about a shot here or there that could have turned the match to make up that one point,” said Stricker, “and you hate to see Hunter go through what he’s going through, because it really shouldn’t have come down to that.”
Later, when he collected himself, Mahan went on to say he’d had fun being in his position.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever see that again, no matter where we go,” Mahan told a PGA of America media official. “It was really, really neat. That’s what the Ryder Cup gives you, it gives you moments like that. And whatever happens, happens. I know that it will make me into a better player, because there’s not a scenerio where I’ll ever see that again, I don’t think.”
Even the man on the winning side appreciated the moment for what it was, and said all kinds of thoughts began swirling through his head as more and more of his teammates dropped back to watch and he realized his point would be important. He was told not to look at leaderboards, but they were so large, he couldn’t help himself. On the 16th fairway, he was informed U.S. rookie Rickie Fowler had come back from 3-down to earn a half-point against Edoardo Molinari.
Now McDowell needed to win for Europe to gain the cup. Gulp.
“That’s the most difficult nine holes of golf I’ve ever played in my life,” he said.
Transformed into a spectator, European teammate Lee Westwood, now ranked No. 2 in the world, said he hated every minute of having to watch.
“I don’t know how my parents do it, watch,” he said. “It’s just awful. … So much easier playing, because you’re in control.”
Added Westwood, “At that moment in time, Graeme had the whole team’s success or failure in his hands. So that’s a lot of pressure.”
It was. Long live the Ryder Cup. There is no other golf tournament remotely like it. And kudos to those that are in the arena willing to put their necks on the line. It takes guts.
And payoff is never guaranteed.