MEDINAH, Ill. - Graeme McDowell knew it was a mistake as soon as he glanced up at the scoreboard.
That comfortable lead Europe had taken into the singles matches two years ago was gone, erased in a flurry of American birdies. Instead of coasting into the victory party as he'd expected as the 12th man out, the Ryder Cup — to say nothing of Europe's pride and honour — was in McDowell's hands.
"Those last seven holes, I've never been so nervous in my life," McDowell recalled Tuesday. "Coming down the stretch that day was some of the toughest golf I had ever played in my life, and some of the most nerve-racking golf. Myself and Hunter Mahan, someone was going to be the hero and someone was going to be the villain that day.
"Thankfully I was able to get the job done."
Of course he did. When the Ryder Cup is on the line, the Irish usually do.
McDowell delivered the winning point at Celtic Manor with a 15-foot birdie on the 16th hole, joining Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley, Philip Walton and Christy O'Connor Jr. as Irish heroes on one of the biggest stages in golf.
Don't be surprised if that Irish luck holds this week, too. Though European captain Jose Maria Olazabal refused to give any hints about his lineup, it's almost certain McDowell will be playing with world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, his good friend and fellow Northern Irishman, when the Ryder Cup begins Friday at Medinah Country Club.
Paired together two years ago, the two were 1-1-1 in team matches.
"He's one of our main men," Olazabal said of McDowell. "He loves this competition, and I think it brings out the best in him. He's a very gutsy player. It doesn't matter if he's not striking the ball well, he will fight until the very end. He will fight for every shot, for every inch. And we saw that in the past."
Not just from McDowell, either.
Back in 2006, it was Clarke who carried the Europeans. Playing just six weeks after his wife, Heather, died of breast cancer, Clarke gave the Europeans an emotional charge the Americans never came close to answering. He won all three of his matches, and the Europeans routed the U.S. 18 1/2-9 1/2 for their third straight victory.
Four years before that, McGinley made a spectacular save on 18 to snatch a halve from Furyk and take the cup from the Americans. After McGinley had pulled even with a 12-footer on 17, Furyk was only 3 feet away from a certain par — after a beautiful bunker shot. McGinley, meanwhile, missed the green — badly. But he made a gorgeous pitch to about 8 feet, and sank the putt for the halve.
Back in 1995, the little-known Walton had lost what would be his only other Ryder Cup match, in Saturday morning foursomes. He would go 3-up on Jay Haas with three holes left in singles, only to lose 16 and 17. But Haas was in trouble off the 18th tee, and Walton two-putted for a bogey and the point Europe needed to win the cup, kickstarting its current dominance. The Europeans have won six of the last eight Ryder Cups.
And in 1989, O'Connor — a captain's pick — upset Fred Couples by making two birdies on the last three holes. One of the most celebrated shots in Irish golf was O'Connor hitting 2-iron from 229 yards to about 4 feet for birdie. It shook Couples so badly that he missed the green with a 9-iron, and it was key to Europe retaining the cup.
"The Ryder Cup's become such a big deal, I think people love it as a spectacle," McDowell said. "The aftermath (in 2010) and the 17th green when everyone swamped that green, it was something like I've never seen in golf before, and cool to be part of."
McDowell was hardly an unknown at Celtic Manor. He'd been unflappable in winning the U.S. Open just three months earlier, barely blinking as he withstood charges by Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els at Pebble Beach. He wasn't a Ryder Cup rookie, either, going 2-1-1 at Valhalla.
But it was his performance in Wales that transformed the 33-year-old — on and off the course.
"Winning the U.S. Open, there was sort of an aftermath of congratulations from everyone. I think that lasted a few weeks," McDowell said. "But the Ryder Cup was something a bit different because that was enjoyed by European fans, the European Tour, anyone that calls themselves European. I think I certainly got recognized more for that putt at the Ryder Cup than I did for my U.S. Open. There's no doubt about that, certainly in Europe."
McDowell hasn't won a tournament since 2010 but he's never far from the conversation, either. He's made all but four cuts in 22 starts on the PGA and European tours this year, and has five top-five finishes. He settled for second at the U.S. Open after missing a 25-footer to force a playoff, and was fifth at the British after blowing up with a final-round 75.
If Olazabal sends him out last again in singles, McDowell will be ready to deliver again.
"Where will I play on Sunday? Who knows?" he said. "Part of me would love that opportunity again — part of me would love it, part of me would hate it. I'll take whatever comes."