U.S. team rallies around Mahan after bitter defeat

Hunter Mahan struggled to speak at the press conference following his loss to Graeme McDowell.
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

NEWPORT, Wales — Hunter Mahan had made it through the closing ceremony in one piece, but now, as he sat on the dais while the media asked questions about the U.S. team's agonizing, 14.5-13.5 loss at the 2010 Ryder Cup, the emotion overwhelmed him.

Mahan reached up and wiped away a tear as a teammate came to his defense.

"If you go up and down the line of the tour players in Europe and the U.S.," said Stewart Cink, who went undefeated and scored 2.5 points at Celtic Manor, "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. Hunter Mahan put himself in that position today. He was a man on our team to put himself in that position."

Several people in the room broke into applause.

"It's the toughest spot in the game of golf," Cink added.

Mahan lost his match 3 and 1 to U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell. It was, after a furious American comeback, the point that won the Ryder Cup for Europe. Even a halved final match would have given the Americans the half point they needed to get to 14, which would have been enough since they were the defending champions. (A tie score keeps the Cup in the hands of the reigning champs.)

It was the first time a Ryder Cup had come down to the final match since 1991.

Cink had just finished his impassioned speech when a reporter tried to ask the hard-luck Mahan a follow-up question.

The query hung in the air for a few moments, as Mahan, looking shell-shocked, sat silent. Zach Johnson put an arm over his shoulders.

Phil Mickelson, sitting on the other side of the stunned Texan, jumped in.

"Let's go to another question," Mickelson said. "You in the blue."

In a Ryder Cup that was quite unexpectedly decided by just a half point, you can go back and highlight a defining roll of the ball or breath of wind. A half point is a spike mark or a piece of mud or a raindrop in an American's contact lens.

Mahan's match was only the most conspicuous of a slew of missed opportunities for the American side. Cink missed a four-footer for birdie on 17 that would have given him a full point instead of a half against Rory McIlroy. Mickelson blamed himself for going 0-3 in his first three matches before finally righting himself with a singles victory.

"There's a lot of us that are looking at each other going, 'Gosh, one half point and we get to take the Cup back home,'" said Jim Furyk, who went 0-2-1, including a well-played 1-up loss to England's gritty little Ryder dynamo, Luke Donald.

"We can all look back and think about a shot here or there," said Steve Stricker, who blitzed Lee Westwood 2 and 1 in the lead match and went 3-1-0.

Still, Mahan looked the most devastated, which was why his teammates came to his defense, in some cases totally unprompted. Playing arguably the toughest European in McDowell, Mahan fell 3 down as McDowell birdied three of the first six holes.

Mahan wasn't making bogeys, but he wasn't making birdies, either.

"It was a tough match," Mahan told a PGA of America official. "I hit it unbelievable today, I hit it so good. I just couldn't make a putt."

It seemed as if the match wouldn't make much difference in the final outcome until Jeff Overton flipped his fortune against Ross Fisher, coming from 2 down to win 3 and 2, and Rickie Fowler managed an unlikely halve against Italian Edoardo Molinari.

The latter match had been almost entirely written off when Molinari went 4 up through 12, but Fowler made four straight birdies to avoid certain defeat and put the U.S. on the verge of the most unlikely comeback since it overcame a 4-point deficit in 1999.

All of a sudden, everything came down to Mahan-McDowell.

The American made a crucial up-and-down to birdie the short, par-4 15th hole, his first birdie of the match, which cut McDowell's lead to 1 up.

Then came the decisive stroke, McDowell's 15-foot birdie putt on 16 to ignite the crowd and get back to 2 up with just two holes remaining. Europe was on the verge; the U.S. was on the ropes. Every player, captain, caddie, assistant captain, vice-captain, fan, journalist and off-duty fish-and-chips vendor rushed to the 17th hole.

Needing a Fowler-like finish, Mahan seemed to catch his tee shot heavy on the 211-yard par-3, leaving it 10 yards short of the green. Now he needed to chip in, but instead he chili-dipped his second shot, all but ending it and adding insult to agony.

When Mahan failed to hole out his par try from 30 feet, McDowell merely needed to two-putt from four feet for bogey. Mahan conceded the par putt, and bedlam ensued.

The Euros popped Champagne on the balcony over the crowd, and the U.S. retreated to the team room to think of what might have been. U.S. captain Corey Pavin, so robotic in front of the press all week, was overcome with emotion and barely made it through his speech at the closing ceremony. Bubba Watson came to the U.S. team press conference with red around his eyes. And Furyk admitted, "I've never cried after losing other than at the Ryder Cup."

And then there was Mahan, unable to utter a sound as teammates came to his aid.

Europe had won, and it had all come down to the final match for the first time since Bernhard Langer's torturous, 18th-hole bogey at Kiawah in '91, when his six-foot comebacker slipped past the hole to give a crucial half point to Hale Irwin.

"You can't lay it all at one man's feet," said U.S. assistant captain Tom Lehman. "I saw Hunter hit a 4-iron on 17 in a tight situation earlier in the week to about 12 feet, which Zach [Johnson] rolled in for birdie. That's what I reminded him of: 'Think of all the great shots you hit under pressure.'"

Of course that's easier said than done after a sporting event that's so tight fans refuse to divert their attention even to go to the bathroom, when all anyone remembers is who soared and who sunk in the last five minutes of play.

Mahan filed out of the media pavilion, past McDowell and his delirious Euro mates bounding in. The American anchor bypassed an autograph seeker and sat next to Watson on the back of a golf cart for a ride to the Celtic clubhouse and the funereal U.S. team room. Mahan stared straight ahead at nothing.

 

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