NEWPORT, Wales – Hunter Mahan is a diehard Lakers fan. His favorite player is Kobe Bryant, in large part because of Bryant’s long list of clutch shots.
Mahan had a chance to emulate one of Bryant’s fadeaway buzzer-beaters on the Ryder Cup’s final day. He was in the final singles match, 1 down to Graeme McDowell with three holes remaining, needing only a halve for the United States to retain the Cup.
It was a moment Mahan badly wanted to test himself in. He has played in the past four Ryder and Presidents cups, but they’ve been in the U.S. or Canada. This was his chance, like Bryant, to shine in front of a hostile crowd.
I talked with Mahan earlier this year about trying to win the Ryder Cup on the road. “I can’t wait,” he said. “There would be nothing cooler than going over there and silencing so many people. I’ll be so amped up for that.”
Unfortunately, Mahan’s last-second shot missed widely, in the form of a chunked chip shot on the par-3 17th. The loss made an emotional wreck of the 28-year-old.
It’s ironic that Mahan suffered his toughest loss in the best year of his career. He could barely complete a sentence at the post-tournament press conference. It was hard to watch – a young, talented athlete, normally brimming with confidence, reduced to tears.
After the closing ceremonies, the 12 United States team members sat at an elevated table in the interview room. They were asked to give general comments. Mahan, speaking second, talked for a few moments, but his voice soon began to tremble.
Sensing Mahan was struggling, Mickelson took the microphone from him and placed an arm on Mahan’s shoulders. Mahan rested his mouth on the palm of his left hand and stared glassy-eyed into the distance.
A few minutes later, Mahan was asked to describe how difficult it was to play in the Ryder Cup’s final match. Mahan admirably made it seven sentences, but broke down while saying, “He just beat me today.” He was choked up, unable to complete that final word.
After Steve Stricker answered a question directed at him, Stewart Cink took the microphone to defend Mahan with an unprompted monologue. Mahan wiped away tears as Cink spoke.
“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,” Cink said.
“Hunter Mahan put himself in that position today. … Hunter Mahan performed like a champ out there today, all right. And I think it’s awesome. Not many players would want to do that. I’m sorry, I just wanted to add something to that before we stop.”
Mahan was asked one last question, about when he realized his match would decide the Cup. Mickelson gingerly pushed the microphone toward Mahan, but realized a few seconds later that Mahan would be unable to answer.
Mickelson took back the microphone a few seconds later, then tried to lighten the mood. “Let’s go to another (question). Yes, in the blue, back there. Go on, lad.”
Mickelson could’ve directed the last sentence at Mahan. Players move on from the tough losses, but it can be a difficult process. Mahan showed that Monday.