NEWPORT, Wales – Graeme McDowell's day began later than most, which was fine with him. The last player off the tee in the Ryder Cup, he wanted nothing more than a nice relaxing round of golf, followed by some celebrating with the rest of a European team that seemed to be on its way to an easy win at home.
What he got was the toughest back nine of his life, and a place in Ryder Cup history.
Enjoying his golf one minute, he was shaking inside the next. Like a condemned man heading to the gallows, he knew it would soon be his turn.
"I didn't want it to come down to me, that's for sure," McDowell said. "I hoped these guys beside me were able to do the job and my caddie was going to give me the nod at one point to relax and to know that we had done the job."
The job, though, was his. McDowell knew it from the minute he got to the 10th green, looked up at the leaderboard and started to do the math.
The Americans were surging. The Europeans were just trying to hang on.
"I was imagining losing and I was imagining winning in the same breath," McDowell said. "There was a lot of negativity in my head."
Such is the pressure of the Ryder Cup, which brings out emotions players never knew they had. Just a few months ago McDowell won a U.S. Open by having the steely resolve to make par on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, but this was something different.
"This is another stratosphere compared to Pebble Beach," McDowell said.
Indeed, his final match at Ryder Cup meant everything, and McDowell delivered just when it seemed everything was slipping away.
A brilliant birdie on the difficult 16th gave him some breathing room. A 4-iron to just off the green on the par-3 17th did the rest.
A day that began with Europe comfortably ahead and McDowell's match against Hunter Mahan being played for little more than bragging rights, ended with McDowell in the center of a wild mass of people who raced onto the 17th green to celebrate.
The party traveled to the 18th green, to the balcony of the Celtic Manor clubhouse where McDowell ran down a long line of fans, slapping hands with anyone who wanted to touch Europe's new golfing hero.
It was a remarkable scene for the 31-year-old from Northern Ireland, who in the space of less than four months went from being a decent player on the European Tour to a major champion and now the man who saved Europe from itself on the first Monday in Ryder Cup history.
He somehow was able to conquer his worst fears when they very nearly got the better of him.
"I can safely say that I've never felt that nervous on a golf course in my life before," McDowell said.
The win came on the same course where McDowell's magical run began the first week in June, when he shot 64 and 63 in the final two rounds to win the Welsh Open. That moved him into position to make his second Ryder Cup team, and two weeks later he stunned the golf world with a gritty final round to become the first European in 40 years to win the U.S. Open.
Not a bad season for any player, but nothing compared to this.
"Obviously, I was out there trying to win it for me, for my 11 teammates, for Colin, for Europe, for all of those fans out there," McDowell said. "It was a different level completely to what Pebble Beach was, and this is why this golf tournament is extremely special and will continue to be one of the greatest — probably the greatest golf event on the planet."
McDowell always figured to be in the spotlight in this Ryder Cup, if only because European captain Colin Montgomerie always intended to match him with countryman Rory McIlroy, a 21-year-old superstar in the making. The two played decently together, going 1-1-1 in team matches, but McDowell was struggling with his swing and not doing anything to indicate that he would shine in the finals.
Montgomerie thought differently, making a strategic decision to hold McDowell in reserve and send him off in the final match just in case things turned sour for a European team that came into the day with a 9½-6½-point lead that seemed almost insurmountable.
Montgomerie knew what happened at Pebble Beach. He figured a player who could withstand the pressure to win his first major championship could withstand the pressure of being the closer if it somehow came to be.
"There was a reason Graeme was there and it worked out brilliantly," Montgomerie said.
While McDowell knew from the 10th green on that his match was going to count, he wasn't sure how much until he hit his drive on the difficult 16th hole and was walking to the ball in the middle of the fairway. By then, what had been a 3-up lead had shrunk to a one-hole lead, and McDowell had lost the previous hole with a flubbed chip.
Word reached McDowell on the fairway that Rickie Fowler had birdied the last four holes to salvage a half point for the Americans. Now, instead of simply needing to tie his match for Europe to win, McDowell needed to win it.
His 6-iron shot headed for the green and finished 15 feet away, as the crowd roared and his teammates gave each other high-fives. Then McDowell stroked the putt and it caught the right edge, falling in for a birdie that put him 2-up with 2 to go.
"The greatest second shot and greatest putt that I've hit in my career," McDowell said.
Not long after, the greatest celebration of his career began.