It’s been quite the week for Europe’s Ryder Cup hero, but Graeme McDowell’s reflections are sprinkled with positively terrifying moments, as he recounted to Simon Lewis
IF Graeme McDowell was under the illusion that last Monday at Celtic Manor was going to be a fun day at the Ryder Cup, his caddie Ken Comboy wasn’t long in putting him straight.
The hero of Pebble Beach had been chosen by European captain Colin Montgomerie to carry the team home to victory over the United States on account of his nerveless final round at the US Open.
Already shocked at being given the role the night before, the enormity of the task dawned on the Irishman as he led singles opponent Hunter Mahan down the stretch in Wales.
“I said to my caddie with about eight holes to go, ‘I’m so nervous’ and I’m talking it through and he’s telling me about Pebble and ‘you can do this’ and every time we’re under pressure we can do the job,” a hoarse McDowell said in the wake of his 2&1 victory over Mahan that secured a 14½-13½ win for Europe.
“I’m like, ‘okay, let’s have some fun’ and he says, ‘well, that’s not going to happen, let’s try and get it done’.
“So, no, it wasn’t fun. You practice all your life to put yourself in that kind of scenario but when you’re
actually there, it’s not fun, it hurts. You want it to be over, you want to do the best you can and you don’t want to mess up and it’s tough. But that’s what you work for and sometimes you’ve just got to remind yourself of that.
“But sometimes it doesn’t work either.”
This time, though, it did. Just. And with a little help from the unfortunate Mahan, a gutsy Texan left
inconsolable after his duffed chip at the 17th green and subsequent missed putt, helped an uncharacteristically shaky US Open champion over the finish line.
“There’s no doubt that I drew on my experience from Pebble but I felt a different level of nervousness,” McDowell explained.
“From about the eighth, ninth onwards I was feeling extremely nervous. My strategy was not to concentrate on what the rest of the guys were doing, but I couldn’t ignore it. There was a 20-ft screen by every green and it was impossible not to know because one glance and you saw blue and red and I knew what I had to do.
“I knew it was close, so all of a sudden my match was important and I was nervous. There was so much more pressure on me to do what I did and of course the US Open is extremely special to me but this was extra special. If I hadn’t won the US Open, I would have been letting me down, my caddie down, my family down and the people associated with me.
“In this Ryder Cup, I would have been letting a whole bunch of people down and the pressure associated with that is different and it was an amazing experience.”
McDowell’s Celtic Manor exploits, allied to his US Open success in June, has put the Ulsterman in the frame to win both the RTE and BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards but that was the furthest from his mind when he heard his name come out last in the singles order being read by Montgomerie last Sunday evening as Europe sat on a 9½-6½ overnight lead.
“When I was sitting in the team room on Sunday night, about 6:30 and Colin went through the order and he’s gone through six, seven, eight, nine, 10. I’m like, woah. You know, I expected to play deep in the order because I’d told a couple of the assistant captains ‘give me a tough game’. But when I heard myself 12th, it was a mixture of intimidation and excitement. I was thinking, I hope it doesn’t come to me but if it is going to come to me, I’m going to be ready.
“I talked to a few of the guys. I talked to Padraig, I talked to guys that had played last in the order, like, ‘how do you do this?’ and ‘what am I going to face?’ and ‘what can I expect?’. And the guys were like, ‘don’t watch the boards, play your own game, try and win your point’. These are things that I concentrated on all day.
“I didn’t want it to come to me but being 2-up when it did helped.”
By the time McDowell and Mahan reached the 16th green it was up to the Irishman to deliver victory for Europe. As the defending champions, the USA needed just a half from the final singles match to retain the trophy. Europe needed the full point and McDowell, his lead cut to 1-up as Mahan rallied, had a birdie putt from 12-feet out to buy some breathing space.
“I was trying to hole it for sure but I was also hitting it at a lag-type pace. And it was one of those putts that you can leave short,” he said.
“I barely touched the putt, barely touched it. I putted well all week and really hit a lot of good putts. My golf swing didn’t feel great at all this week and I didn’t play my best at times but I dug and dug and dug and putted great and the putt on 16 was the greatest putt of my life.”
Then came the par-three 17th and the hole that will haunt Mahan for the rest of his career. His duffed chip from 15 yards short of the green left the American with a long putt to keep the contest alive with McDowell waiting 25 feet from the pin in the fringe after his tee shot rolled off the right edge of the green.
“I’m watching him hit his putt and I’m preparing myself to hit that putt,” McDowell said “In this tournament you’ve got to expect guys to hole and I expected him to hole. His chip shot dictated my shot selection. I was going to use a wedge and chip the ball there but he gave me the opportunity to take any chance out of it and nudge it up there. The putter was not a shot that I would normally have played in that scenario but the pressure is extreme in this scenario and you’ve just got to try and do what’s necessary.”
McDowell had nothing but sympathy for a golfer who had been his college rival in America when the Irishman was at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and Mahan was at Oklahoma State.
“Hunter’s a guy I’ve played with many times. I played in the final round of the NCAA Championships in my last year and I’m leading the national championship and I’m playing with Hunter Mahan.
“We’ve played a lot of golf together, we know each other well and he’s a true champion. I’m sure he was disappointed that he didn’t do what he had to do for the team but we’ll have a beer later on and that’s the great thing about this sport. We can be competitive on the golf course and great friends off the golf course and that’s what it’s all about.
“This is an emotional golf tournament. I’m very emotional right now myself and 17 was amazing but I’m sure he’s disappointed. But it’s one putt here, one putt there and things could have been completely different.”