Every Ryder Cup creates its heroes and its goats, its legends and its forgettable also-rans. For much of Monday, it appeared that this Cup was headed for impressive-but-forgettable status, as the European team was stomping the Americans flat.
And then came the back nine, and just like at Augusta on Masters Sunday, the tournament began. Specifically, all eyes turned to two pairings where the Europeans held an edge over the United States. With most of the other matches decided, the battles between Rickie Fowler and Eduardo Molinari, and Graeme McDowell and Hunter Mahan became the focal points, the ones that would decide the tournament. And in each pairing, one player came up huge.
First, Fowler. The kid who last year was an amateur playing in the Walker Cup was a controversial choice for a captain's pick, and his play in the first three days -- tentative, nervous, marked by a rookie-mistake rules violation -- did little to quell the cries that Corey Pavin should have picked a more experienced hand like Nick Watney or Charley Hoffman.
Then came the final six holes on Monday. Down four holes to Molinari, Fowler kicked off an astonishing clutch run that finished with two long putts on 17 and 18. Making either one of those would have been classic; drilling both was legendary. If the United States had hung on to win, Fowler would have been an instant hero. For now, he'll have to settle for being a star-in-waiting.
The reason for that is McDowell. After seeing his lead dwindle to a single hole, and knowing that Fowler had halved the hole ahead of him -- which meant Mahan only needed to tie the hole to give the U.S. the cup -- McDowell dug deep and found something that kept him steady through the final holes. And on 16, with Mahan charging and no more margin for error, McDowell holed a long putt that danced along the right edge of the cup before falling in, putting him 2-up on Mahan and all but ending the match.
And that, really, was that, as Mahan couldn't get it together on 17 and saw McDowell take the hole and kick Europe into a celebration that'll continue for many days.
It's easy to fall short at the Ryder Cup; Mahan, Molinari, Padraig Harrington, Stewart Cink and so many more could tell you just how easy it is -- if they could bring themselves to talk about it, of course. But it's so much tougher to be clutch when the entire golf world is watching. Even though only one of them won, McDowell and Fowler deserve all the credit in the world for standing tall just at the moment their teams needed them most.