Commentary

Langer's advice can benefit Mahan

19 years ago, Bernhard Langer's missed Ryder Cup putt sparked career bests

Updated: October 11, 2010, 1:14 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

A week has passed, and time should dull the pain. His American teammates already did a commendable job of shifting any blame, taking the focus off Hunter Mahan, who found himself in the unenviable position of losing the deciding match at the Ryder Cup.

Mahan, of course, should not have felt the need to shoulder responsibility, as many of his teammates and other observers have pointed out.

He was 2 down with two holes to play, and you can point to several other matches that could have turned a stirring 14½-to-13½ defeat to the Europeans into an amazing American victory.

Mahan, as it turned out, was in the final match against Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, the only one left on the course.

If he is in need of any reassurance, perhaps he can look to Germany's Bernhard Langer, who was involved in the previous Ryder Cup to come down to the final match.

"There is nothing he should be ashamed of," Langer, 53, said. "He played some great golf. Yes, he chili-dipped that one chip [on the 17th hole], but that doesn't mean he was going to win the match.

"He had a strong opponent who played and putted well. He was the better play on that day, and that is nothing for Mahan to be ashamed of. He should keep his head high."

Langer knows all too well.

It was at the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island in South Carolina where the entire event came down to his match against Hale Irwin. Their 18-hole singles encounter made it to the 18th hole, where Langer had a 6-foot par putt that meant everything.

Irwin already had made a bogey, and the match would be decided with Langer's putt for par.

If he made it, Langer would earn a full point and Europe would forge a 14-14 tie. Because Europe had retained the Cup in 1989 with a tie, the Cup would again go back to Europe.

A miss, however, would mean a halved match, enough to give the U.S. a 14½-to-13½ victory.

And that is what happened.

Langer, who had won 24 European Tour titles to that point and the 1985 Masters, was subjected to a massive celebration by American fans after his putt failed to break -- not unlike the hysteria Mahan encountered after McDowell clinched the cup on the 17th green at Celtic Manor.

A six-time Ryder Cup veteran at the time, Langer suffered through a brutal ending -- much as it was for Mahan.

Coming to grips with the defeat was not easy, but what is often forgotten is that Irwin had a 1-up lead with two holes to play, three-putting the 17th green, then hitting a poor pitch on the 18th.

"I couldn't breathe, I couldn't swallow," Irwin, a three-time U.S. Open champion, said at the time.

[+] EnlargeHunter Mahan
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesA disheveled Hunter Mahan struggled through tears at a news conference after the Americans lost the Ryder Cup.

Time has made it easier on Langer. So has perspective.

"I had to make three very good putts on holes 15, 16 and 17 to even give myself a chance to play 18," Langer recalled. "I didn't see all the details of Hunter's match, but I'm sure he played some good golf to get into position himself. People are focusing on that very last match, but there were a lot of points at stake earlier. If somebody else had played a little better or make a putt or whatever, it wouldn't have come down to that point."

You certainly could say that about the Americans this year. Stewart Cink three-putted the 15th green and missed a 4-footer at 17 in a match he halved against Rory McIlroy; Jim Furyk missed the 18th green with a 9-iron when he needed a birdie to tie.

Players such as Matt Kuchar and Bubba Watson were routed by Ian Poulter and Miguel Angel Jimenez, respectively. Does Mahan deserve blame more than they do?

You could nitpick the matches 19 years ago as well. Ian Woosnam, the reigning Masters champion and No. 1-ranked player in the world, couldn't handle Chip Beck in singles. Sam Torrance and Mark James, future European captains, couldn't even get their matches to the 17th tee.

"The whole team told me not to feel bad," said Langer, who was famously consoled by Seve Ballesteros, among his fiercest rivals on the European Tour at the time. "'We could have all won it earlier on. You did the best you could. Nobody should have been in that position.' That's a common thing, and I'm sure that is what happened with Mahan."

It is. Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson and Cink were among those who made it clear that Mahan was not at fault as the 28-year-old, three-time PGA Tour winner struggled with his emotions.

In Langer's case, he certainly didn't let the disappointment keep him down for long.

The next week, he won the German Masters in a playoff, shooting a final-round 68. He added another Masters title in 1993 and went on to claim a total of 43 European Tour titles. He also played on four more European Ryder Cup teams.

In fact, Langer's 10 Ryder Cup teams is surpassed only by Nick Faldo's 11, his 42 matches the second-most in Ryder Cup history and his 24 points won second only to Faldo's 25. Langer then went on to captain the 2004 European team to victory.

Mahan has played in just two Ryder Cups, and the loss to McDowell was just his second. He is 3-2-3 overall, a pretty good start to what very well might be a long Ryder Cup career.

"There were a couple of reasons I responded well," Langer said. "One was I knew I played well coming from 2 down with four holes to go. I actually had a chance to win. I knew I was playing well, did the best I could. That's all I ever ask of myself.

"I think it will be the same with Mahan. He got himself in position. A lot of guys wouldn't have made it that far, would have lost 4 and 3 or 5 and 4. But he gave himself the opportunity. And it wasn't meant to be."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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