Corey Pavin's players, including Rickie Fowler, gave the captain plenty to be proud about, even in defeat.
NEWPORT, Wales -- When it was over, after the Cup was clinched and the 17th green at Celtic Manor had been transformed into a street fair, Colin Montgomerie emerged from the crowd to climb the muddy hill up toward the clubhouse. Fans serenaded him. Hands reached out to touch him. As the European captain broke into a slow jog, he looked for a moment as if he didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or simply collapse.
Given the events of Monday afternoon, any of the above surely would have sufficed.
For all the hyperbole often associated with the Ryder Cup, here was one that may have exceeded expectations, one that came down to the last two players on the last day, with seemingly all of Wales jockeying for position just to witness the finish.
The American players and wives sat perched on the left side of the 17th green. The Europeans hung on the right. Not until Hunter Mahan conceded a par to Graeme McDowell on the penultimate green could the Europeans celebrate securing the cup they had lost two years earlier. And yet much like his captain, McDowell's initial jubilation was tempered by a profound sense of relief.
"The U.S. Open felt like a back nine with my dad back at Portrush compared to that," McDowell said.
A furious rally would end with the U.S. losing the Ryder Cup for the sixth time in the last eight matches, and yet it was still an afternoon in which the Americans won over skeptics with their resolve. Traditionally it's taken a U.S. win to prove they care about more than just playing for themselves. Strange as it seems, the loss at Celtic Manor may have been their most convincing argument yet.
"We know what it means to us," Jim Furyk said. "Whatever you all thought in the past, whatever you've all written in the past, it's your observations, the way you feel. But we know what it means. I'm glad maybe finally you've all figured it out. And I'm sorry it's in this way."
The evidence was scattered across a Twenty Ten course on Monday. If it wasn't Tiger Woods grinding back from his early deficit to play his final seven holes in seven-under par, it was Rickie Fowler birdieing the last four to salvage a half point against Edoardo Molinari. Or it was Mahan, whose spot in the last singles match originally looked to be irrelevant, right up until the point that it was anything but.
With every other match decided and the score locked at 13½-13½, Mahan suddenly needed just a half point to retain the Cup, but had fallen back to two down after McDowell jarred a 15-footer for birdie on 16. From there, the scene was bedlam. Players and wives treaded cautiously through the mud, fighting for a vantage point along with everyone else. Before McDowell and Mahan arrived at 17, Woods found what he thought was a perfect spot on the back of tee box, only to have a TV cameraman rush in front of him and block his view. On the way to the green, a young man tried to push past a resistant security guard with the rest of a crowd. It wasn't until the guard recognized the young man as Rory McIlroy that he let him pass.
Whether it was the magnitude of the setting or simply the precariousness of the shot, Mahan chunked the chip that was his last chance of extending the match. At that moment, he could only shake his head and chuckle. Later, after the Cup had been decided, he was reduced to tears.
Twice in the closing team press conference, Mahan could only muster a few sentences about the day before beginning to cry. Asked another question about his match with McDowell, he struggled so badly that teammates by his side felt compelled to intervene.
"If you go up-and-down the line of the tour players in Europe 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 ten percent of them would mean it," Stewart Cink said. "It's a selfish spot in the game of golf and Hunter Mahan performed like a champ."
There were sentiments like that throughout the U.S. team, all pointing to their valor and disappointment in defeat. For once, it didn't ring hollow. Corey Pavin said he was proud of his players. Phil Mickelson described how the loss hurt. At that point, the talk was superfluous.
From Montgomerie on one side to Mahan on the other, the measure of this Ryder Cup wasn't in what everyone said. It was in all the words they struggled to get out.