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In a match that featured miserable weather, a wardrobe malfunction and an unprecedented Monday conclusion, the U.S. staged a stirring comeback, only to fall a half-point short

The closing moments of the Ryder Cup were a reminder of why we still care about this exhibition, despite the suffocating hype, the overheated jingoism, the nonstop nonsense about the uniforms and the WAGs and everything else that detracts from its glorious essence. It takes a tournament with no purse to reveal how deeply the players care, and to throw into sharp relief the exquisite torture of pressure-packed golf.

The setup for Monday's singles matches was delicious: The U.S. needed a rousing rally or the Cup was over. Down 9½--6½ heading into the rain-delayed singles, the Americans had to have 7½ points from the 12 matches to forge a tie and retain the Cup. The Yanks grabbed 6½ of the first 10 points, leaving two matches to settle things. Of course it came down to Rickie Fowler, a controversial captain's pick because, despite his considerable skills, the 21-year-old rookie is winless as a pro and hasn't had a top 10 finish on the PGA Tour since early June. He looked shaky going 0-1-1 in team play, leading to more whispers that Fowler is little more than a marketing vehicle built on a flashy wardrobe and a dopey haircut. In his singles match versus Edoardo Molinari, Fowler was all square on the 8th tee but walked off the 12th green 4 down. He looked like he might cry. But Fowler is a fighter who grew up racing BMX bikes, and he careered through the closing holes with abandon, tearing off three straight birdies to get to 1 down playing 18. Fowler was grinding so hard that his teammates following on foot could feel the intensity. "The level of play at this thing sometimes is almost like an out-of-body experience," said Stewart Cink. "You go back later and think of some of the shots you pulled off under intense pressure, and you're amazed."

At Celtic Manor's par-5 18th hole, Fowler produced a clutch wedge shot to 15 feet. He needed the birdie to steal a halve from Molinari and keep the U.S in the ball game. It was the kind of putt on which a reputation can turn, and Fowler wasn't the only one feeling the pressure. His girlfriend, Alexandra Browne, grew up in golf; her father, Olin, is a three-time winner on the Tour. But this felt different. "I can barely breathe," she said.

Fowler poured in the putt and was engulfed by his teammates. You could see it on his face—the overriding emotion was relief, not joy.

Now the entire Ryder Cup tipped in the direction of the anchor match, featuring Graeme McDowell, the chatty Northern Irishman who conquered Pebble Beach at this year's U.S. Open, and Hunter Mahan, 28, a laconic Southern California dude known for his customized cars and gorgeous golf swing. Mahan was considered an extravagantly talented underachiever until this year, when he won twice. He also scored off the course, getting engaged to former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Kandi Harris. This was her first Ryder Cup, and she appealed to a higher power to handle the strain. "I was praying so hard, but the Europeans just played too well," Harris reported after her fiancé lost a foursomes match on Sunday.

Mahan failed to make a birdie in the first 14 holes of singles play, going 2 down to McDowell, a preeminent ball striker. Both players got an inkling of what was at stake as more and more of their teammates began crowding around every green and tee. "It's emotional to watch," said Cink, taking a big breath to collect himself. "It's a pretty helpless feeling."

A testing birdie at the 15th hole brought Mahan to 1 down, the closest he had been since the 3rd hole. Now McDowell, who plays most of his golf at the glorious links Royal Portrush, was taking deep, billowing breaths. As he would say of the pressure, "The U.S. Open felt like a back nine with my dad at Portrush compared to that." Yet at the 16th hole McDowell summoned a textbook birdie. Mahan needed to win the last two holes for the U.S. to keep the Cup, but at the par-3 17th his nerves betrayed him. His tee shot came up well short, he chunked a chip and all was lost. It was an inglorious end to what had been a breathtaking day of golf, and the rousing finish redeemed what had been a soggy, sloppy Cup.

Bringing the match to rainy Wales during the shorter days of October was always dicey, and Friday morning's opening four-ball session never got close to finishing as heavy rainfall led to a predictably saturated course and a seven-hour delay. (The U.S. players were also a bit soggy when their rain gear—already derided for gaudy design elements—turned out to be leaky, an absurd cock-up that became known as Waterproofgate. During the rain delay, red-faced U.S. team officials elbowed aside fans at the merchandise tent to purchase gear at the full retail price.) To try to get the Ryder Cup back on track the captains agreed to a revamped format that would take effect once the first session was completed. On Saturday morning the U.S. grabbed a 2½--1½ lead, led by frisky rookies Jeff (Boom Baby) Overton and Bubba Watson. Then, instead of three sessions of four matches, the remaining team games were compressed into two sessions of six.

In the first five foursomes matches on Saturday, the U.S. overcame lilac-colored cardigans to produce 2½ points. The sixth match was all square as Cink faced a 25-footer for birdie with the Euros only five feet away, thanks to a clutch shot by McDowell. Cink may seem mild-mannered—he and partner Matt Kuchar earned the nickname Nice & Nicer—but he's a cagey competitor. Cink took his sweet time getting to the green, munching on a PB&J sandwich, taking a drink from his water bottle and examining the birdie putt for an excruciatingly long time. All the while Rory McIlroy, the boy wonder partnered with McDowell, looked on impatiently, awaiting his chance for glory. Cink's putt was so pure that "it was in as soon as the ball left the blade," he woofed. A rattled McIlroy barely touched the cup. "That hole epitomized Ryder Cup golf," Cink would say of his larcenous and ultimately decisive birdie.

Trailing 6--4, European captain Colin Montgomerie gathered his team before the next session got under way. What followed was an oration that changed the course of the Ryder Cup.

"It was nothing less than a call to arms," said McDowell. "Monty wasn't profane—he didn't even raise his voice—but he is a very eloquent guy, and he spoke with so much passion. You could feel in your bones how much this meant to him, and that energy filled up the room. We ran out there completely fizzed up."

When the third session—featuring a pair of foursomes and quartet of four-balls—was halted by darkness two hours later, Europe led in all six matches, a stunning reversal of fortune. After the Americans rallied and were in position to pick up at least a couple of points in the Sunday restart, the Euros responded with clutch play down the stretch, taking 5½ of the six points in a display that Montgomerie called "one of the greatest days for European golf that we have had."

"Hey, at least we didn't get swept," said Overton. Clearly this guy had been spending too much time around Corey Pavin. The U.S. captain was an underwhelming presence throughout the Cup, smugly obfuscating with the press and showing so little passion on the course that he appeared to be medicated. The players motivated themselves with a rah-rah meeting in the team room on Sunday night. "There were a lot of great speeches, a lot of emotion," said Cink. "The vets stood up to talk, and some of the younger players too. It was the kind of thing that only happens at the Ryder Cup."

The bond held on Monday, as Mahan's mates took turns consoling him. He received no blame, only sympathy. Said Cink, "A lot of players say they'd like to be in the match that decides the Ryder Cup, but I don't think many mean it. Especially after watching this."

Now on

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Photograph by FRED VUICH

MONEY Clinging to a 1-up lead in the match that would decide the winner, McDowell dropped a 15-foot birdie putt at the 16th, and the home crowd erupted.



SHORT STORY The Americans' fate was essentially sealed when Mahan flubbed his chip shot at the 17th hole.