NEWPORT, Wales – Hunter Mahan kept searching for the words. All he could muster were tears.
From the ecstasy of Valhalla to the despondency of Celtic Manor, Mahan was the unmistakable face of an American team that came so close pulling off an improbable comeback, only to hand the Ryder Cup back to the Europeans on Monday.
Mahan asked to be in the last singles match, asked to have the pressure of the anchor spot put squarely on his shoulders. At the end, the blonde-haired Texan got exactly what he wanted: the match that would decide who got the cup.
Only it didn’t go as planned. Instead of the cheers Mahan heard two years ago as one of the stars of a U.S. triumph, he tasted the bitterest of defeats, his last hurrah ending at No. 17 with a short tee shot, a flubbed chip and a putt from off the green that wasn’t even close.
Mahan didn’t bother making Graeme McDowell putt out, shaking hands with the Northern Irishman, then clearing out of the way so the Europeans could begin their celebration right there on the 17th green.
The Americans lost 14 1/2 -13 1/2 . Mahan took the blame, as unfair as that is in a team competition that played out over 28 matches and four days.
“He just beat me today,” Mahan said, struggling to keep his composure.
When he joined his teammates in the interview room, his anguish was apparent. They patted Mahan on the back, trying to prop him up. They praised him for his courage and tried shifting the blame to other points lost. He kept rubbing his eyes, trying desperately to keep from breaking down for all the world to see.
“I’m just proud to be a part of this team,” Mahan said. “It’s a close team, and …'
That’s about all he could say.
His teammates spoke for him.
“We are all proud to be part of this team,” Phil Mickelson chimed in, giving Mahan a gentle slap on the shoulder. “We came within half a point. But we could look anywhere throughout those 28 points for that half a point.”
Asked how it felt to know the entire match hinged on his one-on-one with McDowell, Mahan teared up again. And Mickelson ran interference again.
“Let’s go to another one. Yes, in the blue back there,” Lefty said, pointing to a reporter on the other side of the room.
Clearly, others contributed to this defeat.
Stewart Cink? He played in one of the earliest singles matches against Rory McIlroy. The American had the lead until he three-putted the 15th. Then he missed a little 6-footer at the 17th to reclaim the lead, and a 15-footer at the end that still would have won the match. If Cink had taken a full point for the Americans, it would have been 14-14 – and the tie goes to the defending champion.
Mickelson? He lost all three of his team matches, giving him more career defeats than any other U.S. Ryder Cup player, before an easy singles win against Peter Hanson.
“If you go up and down the line of the tour players in Europe and the U.S. and asked them if they 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. He was the man on our team, to put himself in that position. Hunter Mahan performed like a champ out there today. I think it’s awesome. Not many players would do that.”
Steve Stricker won the leadoff match for the Americans, setting the tone for a comeback that came oh-so-close. He, too, said it was unfair to blame Mahan.
“We can all think about a shot here and there that could have turned the match to make up that one point,” Stricker said. “You hate to see Hunter go through what he’s going through because it really shouldn’t come down to that. But, unfortunately, it did.”
Even the guy who beat Mahan felt for him.
“If I was Hunter, I would’ve been devastated,” McDowell said. “Aside from that chip (at the 17th), he played flawless golf.”
Later, Mahan was able to get himself together and add a little perspective to what he’s been through at the last two Ryder Cups.
He was the only American to go unbeaten in 2008, playing all five sessions as a rookie and gaining a new appreciation for an event that he had criticized as nothing more than a money-making machine. His signature moment came in singles, where he banged in a 60-foot birdie putt at the 17th and wound up halving a match with Paul Casey that gave the Americans a huge boost on the final day.
And now, Mahan knows how it felt to be Casey – only much, much worse.
“The Ryder Cup brings stuff out of you that you didn’t know you had, from an emotional sense, from a golf sense,” he said. “It’s a great learning experience. I’ll take a lot from it. I’m disappointed now, but it’s not something I’m going to be disappointed with for long.”
Maybe he can pass on the yin and yang of Ryder Cup to rising young American star Rickie Fowler, whose amazing comeback against Edoardo Molinari brought it all down to the last match. The bushy-haired 21-year-old birdied the last four holes, overcoming a three-shot deficit to earn a half point.
“It’s been an awesome week for me,” Fowler said, sounding his age. “It’s been pretty cool to be on a team with all of these guys.”
Mahan was feeling the same way two years ago. His young teammate would be wise to heed those lessons in a career that undoubtedly will include more Ryder Cup appearances.
“This is great for Rickie, great for his confidence,” said Davis Love III, an assistant captain for the Americans. “He’s got to make sure he learns from it the right way. He needs to look at that picture of Hunter pumping his fist at Valhalla.”
And remember the guy sitting on the dais Monday, struggling to hold back the tears.