By Mark Lamport-Stokes
NEWPORT, Wales (Reuters) - Graeme McDowell withstood the greatest pressure of his career to secure the winning point as Europe, led out by Ian Poulter and Luke Donald, regained the Ryder Cup after fending off a brilliant United States fightback on Monday.
Northern Irishman McDowell, playing in the final singles match at Celtic Manor with everything on the line, held his nerve on the 17th to beat Hunter Mahan 3&1 and give the home team victory by 14-1/2 points to 13-1/2.
After a seemingly interminable week of rain delays and the first Monday finish at a Ryder Cup, the patient fans who turned up to watch the biennial team competition in big numbers were blessed with a last day to savor.
Poulter crushed Matt Kuchar 5&4 and Donald beat Jim Furyk one-up before the Americans clawed their way back, rookie Rickie Fowler stealing a valuable half after brilliantly birdying the last four holes against Italian Edoardo Molinari.
With the overall score tantalizingly poised at 13-1/2 13-1/2, McDowell sank a curling birdie putt from 12 feet on the 16th green to go two up on Mahan before securing the win with a conceded par at the 17th.
European players, caddies and hundreds of fans swarmed across the green to swamp McDowell in jubilant celebration as chants of "Ole, Ole, Ole," echoed across the Usk valley and champagne bottles were uncorked.
"To captain this winning team was the proudest moment of my golfing career," said beaming captain Colin Montgomerie. "They all played magnificently, they all gave 110 percent and that's all I could ask.
"I just had to rely on certain people at certain times. Graeme McDowell was put there for a good reason, he's full of confidence and that showed. That birdie on 16 was quite unbelievable."
"The U.S. Open felt like a back nine with my dad back at Portrush compared to that," he said. "I've never felt that nervous on a golf course in my life before."
It was the first time the Cup had been decided in the bottom match since Hale Irwin benefitted from Bernhard Langer's missed putt at Kiawah Island in 1991.
Spare a thought, though, for Mahan who had fought back against McDowell to one down with three holes to play before succumbing to nerves and fluffing his chip.
Distraught, he was barely able to speak later on in the U.S. team's news conference.
Crowds of just over 35,000 at a sun-splashed Celtic Manor were treated to one of the most riveting last days at a Ryder Cup in recent memory as Europe won the trophy for the fourth time in five editions.
The home team led by three points going into the last-day singles thanks to their astonishing five wins and a half performance on Sunday but the Americans cut the deficit to one when Dustin Johnson and Steve Stricker both struck early to beat Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood.
Poulter, who screamed in delight after draining a 25-footer to birdie the third, then notched Europe's first point of the day on the 14th green.
Donald, playing in the third match, was three up on Furyk after 13 holes but had to hold off a late surge by the American before sealing the win par at the last.
"I knew Jim was going to be a really tough opponent," said Donald. "He put some pressure on me at the end but I was glad to get a point."
Pony-tailed Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, at 46 the oldest player on either team, never trailed in his match against U.S. rookie Bubba Watson before winning 4&3 to give Europe a seemingly commanding 13-9 lead.
However, the U.S. edged closer as rookie Jeff Overton came from two down to beat Ross Fisher 3&2 after the Briton bogeyed four of his last five holes.
World number one Tiger Woods added more red for the U.S. with a sizzling display as he overwhelmed Italy's Francesco Molinari 4&3.
Woods had gone two down after two before covering his last seven holes in seven under, the highlight a hole-out from the fairway to eagle the par-four 12th.
"I just stayed patient," Woods said after winning his third point this week out of a possible four.
"Phil Mickelson, who had charged four up after four holes against Swede Peter Hanson, put the U.S. just one point behind at 13-12 with a 4&2 win, scoring his first point of the competition and ending a run of three singles defeats.
Rookie Fowler then produced his late birdie blitz, sinking a curling 15-footer at the last, to earn a battling half.
Moments later Zach Johnson beat Irishman Padraig Harrington to level the score before McDowell gave European fans a day to remember.
The U.S. came desperately close to emulating their victory at Brookline in 1999, when they triumphed after trailing 10-6 going into the last-day singles, and captain Corey Pavin paid tribute to his players.
"We are a team and I was proud of every one of them and how they played. How they fought, how they kept at it out there," he said. "We would win as a team and lose as a team.
"There were many points it seemed this week that momentum was going against us, and they kept fighting back and fighting back. And as I said, we nearly got there today."
(Editing by Mitch Phillips. To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)