MEDINAH, Ill. – By now, the scene has been replayed thousands of times: On a sun-drenched October afternoon in Wales, with the Ryder Cup hanging in the balance, Graeme McDowell holed the winning putt, released a primal scream and punched the air with both fists, his putter held skyward. He was swarmed on the green by teammates and spectators, wives and tournament officials, and he would awkwardly attempt to high-five Rory McIlroy, and soon images of the European team’s euphoric celebration were beamed across the world.
Fast forward two years, to this week’s run-up to the Ryder Cup, and his walk-off winner on the 17th hole at Celtic Manor still brings a smile to the Northern Irishman’s face.
“I don’t think I can ever be more nervous on a golf course than I was that day, for those last seven holes,” McDowell said Tuesday.
He revealed that during that Monday singles match against Hunter Mahan, he made the mistake of looking at the massive scoreboard near the 10th green. Playing in the anchor match, McDowell did some quick arithmetic and discovered that, oh, yes, his match was the deciding one.
“You’re just trying not to mess up,” he recalled. “You’re trying not to lose it for your teammates. I could have 200,000 spectators watching me, but two of my teammates watching me, kind of begging me to get the job done, there’s something intimidating and nerve-wracking about that.”
Emerging victorious from such a pressure-cooker is what forges a Ryder Cup legend, though, and McDowell has become one in Europe. His U.S. Open victory in 2010 may have served as an introduction to casual sports fans in the States, but his triumph in Wales capped one of the best years ever for a European player.
“He’s one of our main men,” European captain Jose Maria Olazabal said. “He loves this competition; I think this competition brings out the best in him. He’s a very gutsy player. It doesn’t matter if he’s not striking the ball well; he will fight until the very end. He will fight for every shot, for every inch. And we saw that in the past.”
Of course, such a rich history will help McDowell little once the first tee shot is struck Friday at Medinah. For a few sessions, at least, he is likely to play alongside McIlroy – a comfortable group not only because of their longtime friendship, but because now the 23-year-old McIlroy is the top-ranked (and hottest) player in the world. Indeed, ’tis better to play with Rory than against.
McDowell described this year’s event as “perhaps the two best teams that have ever been assembled,” and that it will be a “titanic struggle” from the outset.
Titanic struggle – that sounds like an ideal atmosphere for a grinder such as McDowell. And when the singles pairings are announced Saturday evening, don’t be surprised to see him trotted out in the 12th and final match, yet again. In 2010, he summoned his best golf when the spotlight shone brightest. Would he again relish the opportunity to be in the anchor spot?
“Part of me would love it,” McDowell said, “and part of me would hate it. I’ll take whatever comes.”