NEWPORT, Wales – This is why the Ryder Cup is more than golf’s best event.
This is why it’s the game’s most riveting spectacle.
After the Europeans held off a magnificent American charge to win Monday, thousands of fans swarmed Graeme McDowell as he left the 17th green at Celtic Manor. That's where he defeated Hunter Mahan to win the vital final point in the final pairing in a thrilling finish that ranks among the best in the 83-year history of the competition. They swarmed him in raucous delight and paraded all the way to the clubhouse.
“It’s incredible,” Lee Westwood said in the aftermath of Europe’s 14 ½-13½ victory against the Americans. “It’s gotten out of control, but you can’t blame people. It’s been one of those Ryder Cups that’s had everything.”
And he meant everything.
Through a difficult week, through two days of showers that brought more than half the rainfall the Usk Valley typically sees in the entire month of October, through more than 12 hours of rain delays, through downpours that ignited an American raingear controversy, this terrific Ryder Cup finish made all the trouble worth enduring.
This extra day, this ending, this heart-thumping closing act made the trek through the muck worth the journey and the wait for the spectators who kept showing up. It also reminded us what sets the Ryder Cup apart.
“I can safely say I have never felt this nervous before on a golf course in my life,” McDowell said.
This is the man who held off Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els in the final round to win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June.
“I’ve never cried after losing, other than at the Ryder Cup,” American Jim Furyk said.
Mahan’s eyes glistened afterward. He wiped his left eye after being asked about the final chip he chunked in front of the 17th green, the shot that cruelly will be remembered as the one that lost this Ryder Cup. He couldn’t give an answer but PGA officials provided quotes later.
“You feel like you’re playing for everybody,” Mahan said.
It was a day so compelling nobody in the crowd of 35,000 seemed to want to leave when it was over. They stayed around to celebrate Europe's fourth victory in the last five Ryder Cups.
You don’t see scenes like this at major championships. You don’t see the depth of emotions stirring players and fans alike at the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA Championship. You don’t see so much winning and losing, so much joy and misery packed into one day of golf like the final day of a Ryder Cup.
Atop the balcony in front of the Celtic Manor resort, McDowell led the traditional champagne celebration, shaking bottles before shooting sprays of the sweet stuff onto the crowd below. His fellow countryman, Rory McIlroy, barely old enough to drink the stuff, stiffened when somebody dumped an entire bottle over his head, filling his thick, curly mop of black hair with sparkling suds. Then McIlroy leaned over the balcony like a gorgeous, shaggy dog and shook his head, spraying the fans below.
Somebody winged a cap into the crowd, then a warm-up jacket. Comically, a pair of pants came floating down next. Somebody threw a golf shoe, then another shoe, then a shoe filled with champagne.
Miguel Angel Jimenez came out in a sport jacket and a full-size Spanish flag fashioned as a necktie while puffing one of his giant cigars.
Westwood, who hasn’t had a drop of alcohol in the eight weeks he’s been rehabilitating his torn left calf muscle, wasn’t going to waste the stuff. He lifted a bottle in the air to salute the crowd, then threw his head back and started guzzling.
Down three points to the Europeans starting singles play, a daunting margin in Ryder Cup play, the Americans mounted a brilliant charge.
Despite Europe’s strong start Monday, with eight European flags flying over 12 of the matches, the United States kept attacking, kept turning matches around.
Dustin Johnson officially started the American charge, giving the Americans their first point by routing Martin Kaymer, the German who won the PGA Championship that ended so bitterly and controversially for Johnson six weeks ago. Johnson felt like he should have been in the playoff Kaymer won at Whistling Straits. Johnson looked like he would have won it Monday, closing with four consecutive birdies to beat Kaymer 6 and 4.
Moments after Johnson’s point registered, Steve Stricker closed out his match, beating Europe’s best player, Westwood, 2 and 1.
Session 1 Fourballs
Session 2 Foursomes
Session 3 Foursomes
Session 3 Fourballs
Session 4 Singles
Tiger Woods looked like, well, Tiger Woods. He played like even if he loses the No. 1 ranking this fall, he’s close to finding the form that will win it back. He played like he’s still going to blow past Jack Nicklaus on his way to setting the record for major championships. He played like he wanted to shut us all up with a 4-and-3 thumping of Francesco Molinari. Woods holed a shot from 133 yards for eagle. He made seven birdies and an eagle in a performance that rivaled any he’s delivered at the height of his powers. He was 9 under over 15 holes.
Phil Mickelson delivered, too. He ended his streak of four consecutive Ryder Cup singles losses defeating Peter Hanson 4 and 2.
It all paved the way to an American finish that looked like it might be remembered with USA’s improbable come-from-behind victory at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1999.
“There were a lot of points where I thought we weren’t going to win this,” Westwood said.
American rookie Rickie Fowler, a captain’s pick, put that thought in the entire European team’s head with the blows he delivered in a clutch finish. In a hole, 4 down with six holes to play against Edoardo Molinari, Fowler showed why his teammates rave about his unflappable nature. He birdied the final four holes under intense pressure. With his back against the wall, 2 down with two holes to play, the 21-year-old silenced the giant European crowds by rolling in an 18-foot birdie at the 17th. At the 18th, with European players and wives crowding the green waiting to celebrate Molinari’s victory, Fowler rolled in another 18-footer to halve the match.
“That’s why we picked him,” said Davis Love III, an American assistant captain. “There’s a star player who said he should be our first pick.”
With Woods playing behind him, Fowler said he was inspired at the 14th tee. That’s where he turned around and watched Woods.
“The point that turned me around in my match, or got me pumped up, was when I saw Tiger make that putt on the 13th from about 50 feet and walk it in,” Fowler said. “That kind of gave me a little extra life.”
Improbably, with American Zach Johnson’s victory tying this Ryder Cup 13½ to 13½, the day was down to Mahan vs. McDowell in the anchor match.
Mahan fought himself from 3 down with six holes to go to 1 down at the 16th tee. That’s where McDowell showed the nerve that won him the U.S. Open. He poured in a 12-foot putt for birdie to go 2 up again with two holes remaining.
“I had a massive amount of emotions going through my head,” McDowell said. “I was imagining winning, I was imagining losing in the same breath.”
This wild, wondrous day will always be remembered for what happened in the final act at the 17th hole, a 211-yard par 3.
After McDowell hit the right side of the green, Mahan made a poor, awkward pass. His shot parachuted 20 feet short of the green.
With what must have felt like the entire population of Wales watching, plus all his teammates and European opponents, Mahan set up over a chip shot that embodied everything wonderful and horrible about the Ryder Cup for the players who decide it. If you love golf, your hands were sweating just watching Mahan take the club back. And your heart might have skipped when he stabbed at the ball, chunking his chip, barely getting his ball to the fringe. His long putt for par curled away and this long, wild Ryder Cup was over.
There were sad moments for American golf fans, but many terrific moments to savor in a competition played as intensely as it is fairly.
The saddest thought is that we’ll have to wait two more years to see it played again.