G-Mac clinches glory to add another chapter in Irish love affair with Cup
THE heroic feats of Ireland's golfers at the Ryder Cup glitter as brightly as the little gold trophy itself ... yet at Celtic Manor yesterday, Graeme McDowell added an entirely new and intensely exciting chapter to our little island's history in this hugely intimidating arena.
To join the exalted company of Eamonn Darcy, Christy O'Connor Jnr, Philip Walton and Paul McGinley on the list of Ireland's match-clinchers, McDowell had to show his true colours in one of the most emotionally explosive climaxes at any Ryder Cup.
After the deluge which forced the 38th Ryder Cup into a fourth day for the first time came a final session so dramatic it will stand forever in testament to Colin Montgomerie's canny captaincy: a great European team and the gritty resolve of Corey Pavin's US side as they fought tooth and claw to hold onto the Ryder Cup.
And if McDowell proved his class as a player by winning June's US Open at Pebble Beach, the 31-year-old from Portrush underscored his staggering strength of character on the Twenty-Ten Course yesterday.
Not since Kiawah Island in 1991, when America, with Pavin in their line-up, pipped Europe in the infamous War on the Shore, has the Ryder Cup came down to the last singles game.
This year's Ryder Cup was played out in a far more wholesome atmosphere ... yet the tidal wave of wildly excited people who burst onto the 17th green after McDowell had sealed victory for Europe by 14.5 points to the USA's 13.5, was utterly astounding.
As tens of thousands closed-in on McDowell, his captain and jubilant team-mates, one was reminded of those monster pitch invasions which used be such an endearing feature of All-Ireland final day at Croke Park.
The overwhelming reaction of the 35,000 spectators illustrated perfectly how vast is the well of passion which lies just beneath the surface at the Ryder Cup.
McDowell, so cool as he walked up 18 to US Open victory at Pebble Beach that he felt able to wish the watching TV audience a 'Happy Father's Day', admitted: "I've never felt as nervous on a golf course in my entire life as I did coming down the stretch today.
"You're out there trying to win for yourself, for 11 team-mates, for Colin, for Europe and for all those fans. It was a different life completely to what Pebble Beach was and this is why this tournament is extremely special and will continue to be probably the greatest event on the planet."
McDowell, winner of the Welsh Open here this summer, managed brilliantly to defy the mix of dread and excitement rising in his gorge and hold off a fearsome final assault by Hunter Mahan as their match was transformed into the Ryder Cup decider.
After playing the previous 14 holes in par, Mahan closed to within one hole of McDowell with a birdie on the driveable par-four 15th, where the Ulsterman was stymied by an horrible lie in jungle greenside rough.
Yet McDowell responded by hitting a superb drive into the heart of the 16th fairway. By the time he reached his ball, he was fully aware that Europe's prospects of winning the Ryder Cup rested squarely on his shoulders ... and he responded by playing the shot of his life into the green, 15 feet to the right of the pin.
This effort was unrivalled as contender for shot of the season in Europe until McDowell tickled his treacherous, downhill, left-to-right putt into the cup for the hole-winning birdie which guaranteed him, at least, half a point.
Though the veins bulged in his neck and his eyes nearly popped out of his head as he celebrated that crucial birdie, McDowell calmed himself before hitting the second-best shot of his life off the tee at 17, slamming his ball 217 yards into the fringe rough just right of a suicide pin.
Mahan's tee shot fell short of the green and the unfortunate American, who sank a crucial putt on 17 at Valhalla to win the Cup for his country two years ago, then duffed his chip off the tight lie.
And after failing to make his putt from just short of the green for three, Mahan sparked the craziest celebration in Ryder Cup history by shaking McDowell's hand, so the Ulsterman had no need to hole his own four-footer for par.
The vast chasm which separates the Ryder Cup from every other golf tournament was emphasised by the heart-rending state of Mahan long after the match had finished.
The 28-year-old still was incapable of speech after the closing ceremony, literally breaking down in tears when asked how tough it had been to try and catch McDowell over those closing holes.
Emotions don't just flow at the Ryder Cup. They erupt with all the force of a volcano and few are better equipped than McDowell to deal with the seismic pressures this massive event exerts ... that's why he was sent out at No 12.
"There's a reason why G-Mac was put there and you've just seen why," said his fellow Ulsterman and close friend Rory McIlroy. "He's unbelievable. If ever we needed a guy to pull the Ryder Cup out, it was him."
McDowell always refers to McIlroy as "the most naturally gifted player I've seen" but after his own heroics this season, nobody in Europe or the United States will be misled by his modesty.
As he proved in stunning fashion yesterday, McDowell is one of the great players of his generation, combining the heart of a lion with a generosity of spirit which prompted him to put a brotherly arm around McIlroy's shoulder and help steer him through a searching week.
Montgomerie and his vice-captains had debated long and hard on Sunday evening about their playing order for the following day.
According to one of their number, Paul McGinley, a stunning final-day comeback by the US team at Brookline in 1999 "certainly stood us in good stead", as it ensured that feet would remain firmly on the ground, despite a dizzying haul of 5.5 points from six in Sunday's third session.
How valuable that would be as Pavin's team came tearing out of the gate yesterday, Steve Stricker beating Lee Westwood 2&1 in a titanic match in which the Englishman, Europe's undoubted team-leader throughout the week, finally ran out of steam.
Out of action for eight weeks in the run-up with a torn calf muscle, Westwood led Stricker for seven holes in mid-match but, understandably, faded on the back nine.
Early in yesterday's proceedings, eight European players were ahead but as the day progressed the American's gradually took charge as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the two Johnsons, Dustin and Zach, completing comprehensive victories.
Dustin Johnson's 6&4 win over a subdued Martin Kaymer would serve as sweet compensation for his misfortune at the US PGA Championship in Whistling Straits, where the American was denied a place in sudden death by a controversial penalty on the 72nd hole, and the German went on to win the play-off.
Woods and Rickie Fowler spectacularly denied the Molinari brothers. Tiger came from behind after eight holes to beat Francesco with a spectacular string of five birdies and an eagle in the final six holes of his 4&3 win, while Fowler nicked a precious point from Edoardo with a phenomenal four-birdie finish.
In doing do, the 21-year-old threw the spotlight firmly on McDowell and Mahan and the Ulsterman, brilliantly showing the grit we've come to expect from Irish players at the Ryder Cup, was equal to the challenge.