Funny things happen in sports when the heart palpitates and the palms sweat, which is precisely why Hunter Mahan should never have conceded.
I’m a firm believer in the necessity of sportsmanship and gentlemanly acts but this was no gimme, no tap in, not even with two chances at it. Not with the Ryder Cup and the sporting hopes of a continent sitting squarely on one man’s shoulders.
Jack Nicklaus at the 1969 Ryder cup conceded a two-foot putt to Tony Jacklin that is widely considered one of the greatest sporting gestures in golf history. That was two feet. This was four, maybe even a smidgen more which, under pressure-cooker conditions, can look like a country mile.
Mahan needed to make his opponent, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland swing the putter at least one more time. We all know that golf balls can do odd things when they swirl around the lip and refuse to fall.
If anyone should have understood the mind-body connection it’s Mahan who, just a few moments earlier, had flubbed a chip from just off the green. He chunked it, as the announcer on TV said.
Give Mahan that shot 100 times and, well, let’s just say we probably wouldn’t see anything as ugly as the near-double hit that he’ll ponder for a while. Mistakes like that have staying power. It was that bad, the probable byproduct of jitters born of expectations and a gallery that included hopeful and helpless teammates Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. All eyes were on the 28-year-old Mahan, who was his team’s only hope at retaining the prize.
There were only two players left on the course at Celtic Manor in Wales, where the rain finally stayed away long enough for uninterrupted drama to build in a competition that was supposed to end on Sunday. And build it did, all the way to the last pairing.
Mahan needed to take the final two holes against McDowell, whose comments afterward offer the best argument for why it was the wrong time for concessions. Mahan let McDowell, this year’s U.S. Open champion at Pebble Beach, pick up his ball. No putt. Plenty of party.
“This is crazy. I’ve never felt as nervous on a golf course in my life,” McDowell said when the 38th Ryder Cup had ended with the European side having won, 14 ½ to 13 ½. “The U.S. Open felt like a back nine with my dad at Portrush (his home course in Northern Ireland) compared with that. Wow. It’s just so much pressure.”
Wow, indeed. That’s some quote: Never as nervous. Now imagine McDowell, mouth dry, teammates poised to celebrate, standing over that four footer. Odds are better than good that McDowell either sinks the putt or puts it close enough to merit his opponent’s concession. After all, his nerves looked steady on the 16th hole, where McDowell rolled in a downhill, 8-foot putt that put him in control.
One More Time
Still, it would’ve been nice to see him do it again.
If Mahan at any time in the back nine holes thought that he was nervous, prior to conceding he should’ve thought about what was on the line for McDowell, who was trying to win for not only his teammates and his captain, but all of Europe, where the Ryder Cup is akin to the Super Bowl.
Like McDowell, full of confidence was 21-year-old American Rickie Fowler, a captain’s pick who birdied the final four holes to give his mates a chance. He rolled in a 15-footer on 17 and then sank a had-to-have-it 18-footer on the final hole that ended with a hug from team captain Corey Pavin, who can’t be criticized for anything after his side rallied from three points down entering singles play.
Nothing to Lose
Fowler said he had nothing to lose.
And neither did Mahan. It’s hard to fathom the golf cognoscenti coming down hard had Mahan asked McDowell to put the ball closer than four feet. But he didn’t ask.
Nicklaus and Jacklin became lifelong friends and teamed to design a course in Bradenton, Florida, called The Concession. Who knows, maybe this Ryder Cup and the next one, scheduled for 2012 at Medinah Country Club outside of Chicago, will yield something similar down the line for McDowell and Mahan. I offer no suggestions for where the course should be built, only what it should be called: The Mistake.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)