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Hunter Mahan Crushed after U.S. Ryder Cup Loss

This column was written by golf writer Steve Elling

When the final 12-man pairings for the Ryder Cup were posted late Sunday night, Hunter Mahan was placed, for good reason, at the very end.

When it came time to explain the experience, he couldn't get past the first step.

Gutted after his final singles match decided the outcome, the 28-year-old thrice was so overcome with emotion, his eyes teared up, his voice wavered, and his teammates had to come to his rescue.

Europe Fends Off U.S. Rally to Reclaim Ryder Cup

Unfortunately, they could not do likewise on the actual golf course.

Thrust into the 12th spot in the lineup opposite U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, the entire weight of defending the Cup fell onto Mahan's shoulders at Celtic Manor, and both the pressure and the result left him crushed and inconsolable.

At one point, when Mahan was delicately asked about how his 3-and-1 loss played out, nothing came out but stuttering, sputtering air, and Phil Mickelson had to deflect the attention elsewhere, and other mates spoke for him.

"If you go up and down the line of the tour players in Europe and U.S. and asked them if you 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," teammate Stewart Cink said. "Hunter Mahan put himself in that position today. He was a man on our team to put himself in that position, all right."

All 11 of Mahan's teammates literally applauded Cink's words, but they seemed to be of little consolation to Mahan, eyes red and nose runny. After winning twice this season in clutch fashion on the PGA Tour, this time, the spotlight left him blinded when McDowell put down both Mahan and a furious American rally to return the trophy to European hands after winning one of the most crucial matches in event history.

McDowell's captain, Colin Montgomery, was looking for a guy who could play under duress on the outside chance that the event came down to the final, white-knuckle, nail-biting, stomach-churning moments. As the last match off the tee, the 31-year-old from Northern Ireland drew that assignment.

They both looked like they could hardly breathe.

"Want me to tell you what he just told me?" European star Lee Westwood said. "He was so nervous he could hardly hold the club."

Millions were so anxious, they could hardly watch. For the first time since 1991 at Kiawah Island, the final pairing was asked to settle the most pressure-packed title in golf. After blowing a 3-up lead, McDowell birdied the 16th hole and reclaimed the Cup with a par on the 17th, at which point they began dousing him in champagne.

The European anchor man, built a bit like Popeye the Sailor, won a title for the second time in six months at Celtic Manor, where he won the Wales Open two weeks before he claimed the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. His mates, who nearly coughed up an embarrassingly big lead, practically carried him off on their shoulders.

"He's a different class," said teammate Ian Poulter, who won his singles match. "That was awesome. He stepped up when he had to.

"He went out No. 12 and was that pressure or what? I mean, 35,000 people here today cheering him on and that was an incredible finish."

For the Euros, the start wasn't bad, either, and it's the prelude to a wild final hour in which the Americans, seemingly stuck in the Welsh muck, nearly pulled off a miracle comparable to the comeback from a 10-6 deficit outside Boston in 1999.

For a guy with three career tour wins, Mahan was put in a tough position, but at the start of the day, few would have envisioned that his point would possibly matter one way or the other. By the time Phil Mickelson teed off in the 10th match of the day, the Europeans were leading six of nine on the course. But the Americans scrambled back, and shortly after Mahan and McDowell made the turn, it was all but certain their match would settle the issue because other leaders were comfortably ahead by two or more holes.

After American rookie Rickie Fowler pulled off one of the biggest last-day comebacks ever to claw from 3 down with as many holes to halve his match, Mahan suddenly had a chance to accomplish the impossible -- a tie against his North Ireland opponent would ensure the Americans would retain the Cup at 14-14, and a win over McDowell would mean a victory. Two hours earlier, that was unthinkable.

McDowell was on the 11th when Westwood showed up in a cart, his match over. The others followed soon after. In the 16th fairway, he learned that he had to win in order for Europe to take back the Cup.

"This is the most difficult nine holes I have ever played in my life," McDowell said. "This is another stratosphere compared to Pebble Beach."

It was a tough mountain for Mahan to climb, emotionally, historically and statistically: Mahan was 3 down with seven holes to play, and by the turn, the entire world knew he needed to dig out a win against the unflappable Ulsterman. Teammates and captains on both sides rushed out to watch their match. You could hear various orifices puckering from a thousand yards away.

Mahan, who was unbeaten at 2-0-3 in his Ryder debut two years ago, birdied the 12th and 15th to pull within one, but unlike his victory at Pebble Beach, when everybody collapsed around him and he hung on to win, McDowell went out and won the Ryder Cup in emphatic, memorable fashion.

As the pressure mounted, it was wrenching for players and fans alike.

"It was very flat for 12, 13 holes," McDowell said of the scene as the pressure mounted. "Then it became very obvious that the match was going to count."

More than any in recent memory, in fact. When Mahan drove into the rough and was unable to reach the par-4 16th in regulation, McDowell laced his approach shot to 15 feet and rolled in the birdie putt to go 2 up with as many to play. Which is exactly why Monty put him out 12th to begin with.

"The reason came up trumps at 16," Montgomerie said.

The frantic American rally ended a few moments later when Mahan, 28, came up 30 yards short on the 190-yard 17th hole and McDowell knocked a 4-iron onto the fringe as the gallery came unbolted. Poulter was in the middle of the frenzy as thousands encircled McDowell as he walked to the green, sensing what was about to come.

"Yeah, I was watching -- U.S. Open champion, there's a reason why he was put No. 12," said Poulter, who has a home in the same Orlando development as McDowell. "He delivered down the stretch then and he had to deliver again today. What a key man to put there as an anchor man."

It was anchors aweigh soon enough. Mahan badly stubbed his pitch shot and bogeyed, handing the hole to the 31-year-old, who took a champagne bath on the putting green.

"Nerves of steel," teammate Ross Fisher said. "Absolutely fantastic."

Mahan was bucking some heavy history just getting within striking range. Of the past 144 matches in which players have fallen 3 down, only three have fought back to win and six have managed to halve. Fowler accomplished the latter about 10 minutes earlier, so maybe the American magic was all used up.

After several tries, Mahan mustered up an emotion-choked response that took several poignant moments to articulate.

"He played great today, didn't miss a shot," Mahan said as his mates watched in empathy. "Hit a bunch of key putts, probably the last four or five holes, and you know, he that birdie on 16, after I got it to 1 down, was huge. He played he just beat me today."

Not since 1991, when Bernhard Langer missed a 6-footer and halved his match with Hale Irwin as the U.S. held on to win by a point, had a Ryder Cup gone down to the last match.

American veteran Jim Furyk quickly tried to deflect any blame that might be directed at Mahan, one of the most popular players with his brethren on the U.S. tour. Furyk has been on both sides of the clinching point as the winner and loser, so he knows it can be a lonely feeling.

"We probably have a bunch of guys on the team who feel like, 'You know what, that could have been my half point,'" said Furyk, who himself blew a chance at the 18th to secure a half-point Monday. "It's not anyone's fault individually, but there's lots of people thinking about it.

"I have been in his shoes before, and we as a team had better let him know that it's unfortunate when you get stuck in that last position and it comes down to you. But he fought hard and he played hard and I am proud of him."

The way the team rallied around him, like bears protecting a cub, made that sentiment easy to believe. McDowell was experiencing the other end of the spectrum as his pals lauded his efforts.

"Graeme had the whole team's success or failure in his hands," Westwood said. "So that's a lot of pressure."

Nobody had to tell his opposite number. All week, rain hammered the Ryder Cup. But for those who saw him struggling with the defeat, the water running down Mahan's cheeks might have been the toughest to endure all week.