Stirring American comeback will be remembered despite Ryder Cup loss

Stirring American comeback will be remembered despite Ryder Cup loss

Rickie Fowler's gutsy half a point was one of the many amazing feats the Americans pulled off for captain Corey Pavin.
Robert Beck/SI

NEWPORT, Wales — There’s no word for a miracle that wasn’t.

In 1999, the American Ryder Cup team had the Miracle at Brookline, the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history. On Monday, the U.S. had its second greatest comeback but came up excruciatingly short. Do we call it the Near-Miracle of Wales? Or do we just call it a defeat?

Truly, it was a miracle of a rally even though Europe held on to win, 14 ½-13½. But for now we can look back at the small wonders the Americans pulled off.

• Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, who hadn’t broken an egg between them in three previous matches, won handily.

• Tiger Woods broke loose on his last seven holes with five birdies and a par-4 eagle. He looked just like a guy we remember named Tiger Woods.

• Steve Stricker went up against Europe’s best, Lee Westwood, in the opening singles match and took him down. It was a must-win situation for the U.S. and Stricker slayed the giant. Wisconsin 1, England 0.

• Rickie Fowler came from 4 down on the final nine and birdied the final four holes, including unbelievably clutch putts on the 17th and 18th, to earn a dramatic halve that gave the United States a last chance to retain the Cup. Anybody still want to second-guess adding Fowler to the team as a wild-card pick? He made two clutch putts on the 18th during the week to save two half-points. You know those experts who prematurely ordained Fowler a great player? They were right. He’s definitely got “it.”

• Hunter Mahan awakened, despite his flubbed chip on No. 17. With the entire Ryder Cup outcome down to him, he made birdie at the 15th hole to get back in the deciding match against Graeme McDowell. He was just 1 down with three to play before McDowell’s dramatic putt on No. 16. It was Mahan’s only birdie of the day, but he pushed McDowell to the limit before stumbling.

• An American team that seemed lifeless in Sunday’s unique six-match session, the session that cost them the Cup when the Euros won five matches and halved the other, made the charge of a lifetime in the Ryder Cup’s first Monday finale. After that Black Sunday, it seemed likely the Americans would fade and go home on the short end of a blowout.

Instead, something amazing happened, even if it didn’t come with a trophy and a super-sized bottle of champagne. The United States almost won this Ryder Cup.

“There were a lot of points out there today when I thought, ‘We’re not going to win this,’ ” Westwood said later during the wild celebration. “It was incredible. You never see things like what happened at the 17th green (after McDowell clinched the Cup). It’s one of those Ryder Cups that had everything.”

Vice captain Darren Clarke added, “It could’ve gone either way, it really could. The U.S. played fantastic. The Americans just came out too strong. They did it in Brookline on Sunday and they did it again today. Fortunately, we were able to pull through.”

This loss is not going to be a black mark against American golf, it’s going to be celebrated for the effort the U.S. gave. When captain Corey Pavin spoke with the media after the disastrous Sunday session, he dropped all the old bromides about how proud he was of his players and how hard they tried. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But in the end his team proved its mettle and will be remembered not for its third-round wipeout but for its pedal-to-the-medal fightback.

There will not be a lasting stigma on Mahan for that stubbed chip on the 17th hole. Chipping, his peers know, is his Achilles heel. The Cup was riding on Bernhard Langer’s putt at Kiawah Island in 1991. In Mahan’s case, he was throwing a Hail Mary pass.

After McDowell holed a slick downhill birdie putt to go 2 up at the 16th, Mahan had to win the 17th and the 18th. The odds were against him. McDowell is the U.S. Open champion, had the home crowd and was solid as Stonehenge all week. Once McDowell’s tee shot reached the fringe on the 17th, Mahan had to birdie the long, downhill par 3. Mahan made poor contact and came up 10 yards short and then hit a lousy chip. His lengthy par putt from off the green came close, but it had to go in. He didn’t lose the Ryder Cup; he just couldn’t prevent McDowell from winning it.

That explanation works for the team, too.

The temptation with a close loss is to armchair quarterback all of the matches. It’s easy to find another half point somewhere in every session — too easy. But it boils down to this: When you have three team sessions in match play, you can’t get essentially shut out in one of them.

And remember, the opponents were pretty darn good.

The Europeans were favored heavily, by bookies and journalists. One British writer took a pre-tournament poll. Of 31 writers who filled out a slip, 28 of them picked Europe to win. The Europeans were thought to be the much better team. The Americans proved they’re just as good.

For American fans, this should be easier to take than any other American loss of the past 15 years. The Euros got the Cup back and thrilled the home crowd, which is good for golf in Europe. The Americans showed remarkable resiliency and heart and sportsmanship and played great, which is good for golf in America. (And U.S. players’ egos.) No player left in disgrace, and all made critical contributions.

Did both teams leave as winners? It sounds corny, but maybe this time they did. When NBC went back to the booth for a wrap-up, Johnny Miller said simply, “I loved every minute of it.”

Despite the loss, it’s going to be a long time before Americans forget about this Ryder Cup in Wales.

That may be a miracle in itself. On Monday, it wasn’t the only one.