James Lawton: Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell fall short against US onslaught
Graeme McDowell was the hero of Europe's last great triumph and for a moment yesterday it seemed that he had started here under a blue and steely American sky pretty much as he had finished in the mist and the chill of a Welsh valley two years ago.
It was an exultant thought when he sank the putt which beat America's hottest new force Brandt Snedeker and his veteran partner Jim Furyk to give his team a victory that stopped an outbreak of American triumphalism at its first appearance. But he couldn't raise even the barest mask of a smile and we knew why soon enough.
The Ryder Cup had made new demands of that kind which leaves you drained to the point when it is enough that you survive all the pressure and that in the end you are still able to do what is expected of you.
He did it once in the celebrated company of his brilliant young countryman Rory McIlroy but he couldn't do it again when Keegan Bradley, one of the the bristling American platoon of major champions, and a Phil Mickelson who had once again re-invented himself as a golfer of unfathomable but extraordinary talent, launched another attack after those muted celebrations of high noon.
The Americans over-ran the Irishmen and brought a reminder of McDowell's comment that the glory in Wales had been an experience of mingled love and hate: "Part of me would love that opportunity but part of me would hate it. I'll just have to take what comes."
What came on a first day when the Americans built a commanding lead with the kind of authority that some of them feared had become part of their past was the draining experience of both hard run victory and defeat.
McDowell's task was, beyond question, the heaviest on the first day of a collision that has been projected as potentially the greatest seen in 85 years. The job description was, no more or less, than to operate again as the protector of the world's most compelling player.
That was the status McIlroy once again claimed for himself in a passage of morning golf which explained so eloquently why so many believe that he has indeed surpassed, in touch and confidence and sheer natural born competitive courage, the once indestructible figure of Tiger Woods.
While McIlroy produced some exquisite shorts to carry himself and McDowell into what began to resemble the most formal triumph over America's lead-off combination of seven-million dollar rookie Bruce Snedeker and Furyk, Woods played like a man alarmed by his own shadow as he and his normally re-assuring partner Steve Stricker struggled desperately against Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, and then the surprisingly effective pairing of Lee Westwood and Belgian rookie Nocalas Colsaerts.
Yet this was the day when nothing could be assumed, when no talent was so much on fire that it couldn't be doused and when McDowell came to make his winning putt against Snedeker and Furyk on the 18th green he must have felt the weight of the heaviest sporting history. It was a mere five feet but in the circumstances it might just have felt like the furthest shore of Lake Michigan.
Earlier on the fourth hole, after the brilliant Snedeker had resumed the tempo he displayed so thrillingly in last weekend's Fedex title bonanza, McIlroy chipped in a birdie that was sublime enough to brush against the concept of genius.
There followed four straight birdies, and six in seven holes and by the 11th hole McIlroy and McDowell were three up and enjoying the scenery — a blaze of autumnal russet and red and some very subdued Americans wearing the flag of Old Glory.
Unfortunately, neither Snedeker, the new force from Tennessee nor Furyk, a US Open champion who has longed mourned his poor performances in this great tournament, were prepared to accept this status quo. By the 16th hole they were even.
The necessity was to stand and fight — and maybe rescue the momentum which had seemed likely to carry Europe into a position of imposing domination.
So it came to the 18th all square and for McDowell there was a brutal demand. It was to achieve pure, sweet redemption when the match fell to him to decide. McDowell kept his nerve after McIlroy had produced a superb bunkier shot.
On the fourth the world number one player conjured similar nerveless artistry at the fourth. America's former captain Paul Azinger was somewhat sceptical.
When McIlroy stroked the wedge, 'Zinger' declared that it sounded 'fat' and then, as it snaked down the hole, he added, "Oh, he's got lucky, it's one of those fat rollers." It was maybe not the most generous way of putting it but then, no doubt, the Americans were once again feeling the discouraging weight of the European ability to produce players of outstanding quality.
After the morning survival, both McDowell and McIlroy suggested it was not so much a triumph as an escape and later the former said of the pressure which provoked a hook on the first tee, "It was a very bizarre experience. I was actually feeling very calm and very cool until I stepped over the ball. I couldn't ignore the silence. The silence was deafening and it made by mind go blank. It was very strange." Before receiving arguably the toughest assignment of the second session, the four-ball against Mickelson and Bradley, who had become rampant in the 4 and 3 win over Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia — McIlroy said it one of those times when you just have to keep your head down and do the necessary business.
He declared, "We are going to lunch and to get ready for the afternoon. We are out again together. All I know is that I'm playing with this guy again and I'm looking forward to it."
Certainly they had found a degree of composure in the face of what could so easily have brought the kind of unravelling that does more than lose a single point — the one that might just leave a lingering scar.
McDowell also said, "That match just personifies the Ryder Cup. Rory and me played some great golf to go three up and having a great chance to go four up on 12. In the end we knew we knew we just had to hang in there and try to get something back." Soon enough they were back in precisely the same position after Mickelson, conjuring the richest mix of his career alchemy, and Bradley re-applied the furies that had earlier destroyed Donald and Garcia. The Americans had one point were four up but McIlroy found again some of his most withering and by the 17th there was still the chance of a half point. McIlroy played a beautiful tee shot to the par-3 17th green. Unfortunately, Mickelson produced something even better. It finished two feet from the pin and the Irishman conceded. McDowell gave a sigh that seemed to explain why he hadn't managed to smile over his winning putt. In the Ryder Cup the glory comes and it goes and today it will demand a mighty effort for retrieval.
He said he would take whatever came and here yesterday he had all of it, both the glory and the pain. He had the Ryder Cup. It had gone even deeper into his bones.