By John Manley
Can life get any better for Graeme McDowell after 2010?
Hot on the heels of winning his first major tournament, McDowell won his singles match at the Celtic Manor Resort in Wales on Monday to put Europe over the hump in the Ryder Cup. The Europeans held up best in the sodden conditions to wrest the Cup away from the Americans by a scant point, 141/2-131/2.
The outcome rested on McDowell's shoulders on the first Monday in Ryder Cup history, as the U.S. came back from a 9-61/2 deficit entering singles play. McDowell immediately went on the offensive in his match with Hunter Mahan, the last to go off.
McDowell sank an 8-foot birdie putt on the first hole to take a 1-up lead, an advantage he would not relinquish. Birdies at the fourth and sixth holes saw McDowell go 3-up. Mahan, however, chipped away at that lead and closed it to 1-up McDowell with a successful birdie putt at 15.
But McDowell kept his cool, draining a birdie putt from 15 feet at 16 to go 2-up on Mahan, who then needed to win both of the final two holes to salvage a half-point with McDowell. When Mahan botched a chip at the par-3 17th hole, McDowell was pretty much assured of winning the hole and the match. That became official after Mahan missed his putt and conceded the match.
"This is crazy," McDowell said. "I was trying to do it for 11 teammates, for all the fans, for the caddies, for Europe and for Monty [team captain Colin Montgomerie]. And we were all trying to win it for Seve [Ballesteros], too."
"I've never felt as nervous in my life," McDowell said regarding the homestretch. By contrast, "The back nine at Pebble Beach felt like a back nine playing with my dad at Royal Portrush. It's so much pressure and this is a special feeling. There's nothing quite like it."
A PONDEROUS TEMPO
The event took on a ponderous tempo as the weather conspired to limit play over the first two days. McDowell and Rory McIlroy were paired by Montgomerie for the team matches and they complemented each other admirably, beginning in Friday's best ball matches, in which they earned one-half point against Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar. The Americans had gone 2-up at 11, but McIlroy had but a 3-foot putt to make for birdie at the par-3 13th hole (which he sank), and then he nailed a 30-footer at 17 to square the match.
The same foursome went out in the alternate-ball format, with the Americans coming out 1-up victors. McDowell and McIlroy then took on Mahan and Zach Johnson in the same format in Session 3, and scored a point for Europe with a 3 and 1 victory. They won the first hole and never trailed.
Padraig Harrington acquitted himself well, thus wiping the smirks off the faces of Paul Casey's backers. The event began haltingly, though, as Harrington and Luke Donald won only one hole between them in their opening best-ball match with Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton, which went to the U.S. side, 3 and 2. The Americans were 2 up after two holes and never trailed.
Harrington was paired with Ross Fisher for his next two appointments and they scored a point in each. They took out Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, 3 and 2, in the second session, winning three consecutive holes beginning at the eighth and never looking back. Harrington, putting through a driving rain, knocked Fisher's drive in from five feet for birdie at the eighth hole, and then nearly putted in from 50 feet at the ninth, a hole that the U.S. conceded. At the 10th hole, Harrington left Fisher with a 15-foot putt for birdie, which the Englishman deftly plunked in the cup.
Fisher was the hero in their Session 3 best-ball encounter with Johnson and Jim Furyk, winning three holes to one for the Americans for a 2 and 1 victory.
McILROY'S HALF IS BETTER THAN NONE
Needing only to maintain their 2-point advantage in singles play on Monday, Europe got a half-point from McIlroy, who overcame a reversal of fortune in his match with Cink. McIlroy won the first two holes, but Cink erased that lead by making birdie putts at the next two holes. When McIlroy blasted out of sand into water at the fifth, Cink went 1 up. But a McIlroy birdie at the sixth hole reversed that.
The duo was back and forth, with McIlroy squaring the match again at 15. He conceded Cink's putt at 18, and then holed out from about three feet for the half point.
"In two years' time, I do not want to be watching this on television," said McIlroy, basking in the glow of his first Ryder Cup. "This has been the best week of my life; and the best event in golf, by far."
The U.S. didn't move the needle until Tiger Woods defeated Francesco Molinari, 4 and 3. Mickelson then got a point for the Americans with a 4 and 2 win over Peter Hanson. Harrington could have assured Europe of at least a tie, but he could never get the edge on Johnson.
After Edoardo Molinari and Rickie Fowler halved their match, McDowell was forced to deal with the enormity of the moment.
"Graeme McDowell was put there for a good reason; he's full of confidence and it showed," Montgomerie said. "That birdie on 16 was just quite unbelievable. Quite unbelievable. This is the greatest moment of my golfing career."