By Steve Keating
MEDINAH, Illinois (Reuters) - It might be hard to believe there are more pressure-packed moments in golf than standing over a four-foot putt to win a tournament and pocket a $1 million cheque.
But almost to a man, members of the United States and European Ryder Cup teams who will battle at Medinah Country Club this week insist that barely gets the pulse racing compared to the heart-thumping pressure when playing for national pride.
All 12 members of each side have won tournaments around the world, some have slipped into green jackets after winning the Masters while others hoisted the Claret Jug after British Open triumphs, but nothing compares to the thrill and heartbreak that accompanies every Ryder Cup.
Two years ago at Celtic Manor Graeme McDowell rolled in a 12-footer on the 16th green that secured Europe's margin of victory, the Northern Irishman mobbed by team mates and a euphoric crowd one hole later as his opponent, American Hunter Mahan, was left crushed.
In the aftermath of Europe's victory, McDowell described his U.S. Open win earlier that year to a back nine stroll with his dad compared to the weighty burden he felt that day.
"I can safely say that I don't think I can ever be more nervous on a golf course than I was that day for those last seven holes," McDowell recalled on Tuesday, the first day of official practice for this week's Ryder Cup.
"You're just trying not to mess up. You're trying not to lose it for your team mates. ... Coming down the stretch that day was some of the toughest golf I had ever played in my life."
The Ryder Cup's team concept is a foreign but strangely alluring concept to most golfers who otherwise spend their careers focused on their own performance and bank accounts.
But this week 24 of the world's best players will not pocket a penny for the opportunity to put themselves through an emotional meat grinder.
At a tournament, if a golfer fails to make the cut, he has only to answer to himself. At the Ryder Cup players must deal with the unfamiliar responsibility of holding up their end and carrying the flag for their respective nations.
"For us to represent the United States of America and our team mates, it's something else," said Tiger Woods, who is taking part in his seventh Ryder Cup.
"When it gets to a certain point, either Friday afternoon, late in the evening, or Saturday late in the evening, and all the teams are gathered and there's like one group out there, and if you happen to be in that group, it's interesting.
"It's so much heat on you.
"It's different than playing by yourself. Playing for team mates, it just adds an element that it means so much more because it is our country and it is our team mates."
The Ryder Cup generates the type of gut-churning intensity that can cause even golfers with the strongest knees to buckle. Each Ryder Cup produces moments of truth that will test a player's nerve and in some cases define careers.
At Kiawah Island in 1991, known in Ryder Cup lore as "The War at the Shore," Mark Calcavecchia suffered one of the biennial event's great collapses.
Four-up with four holes to play against Colin Montgomerie, Calcavecchia stumbled and allowed the Scotsman to escape with a half-point.
A disconsolate Calcavecchia walked off the 18th green to the beach where he shed a few tears but the U.S. was able to end the day in celebration when Germany's Bernhard Langer, one of golf's coolest customers, missed a short putt on his final hole to hand the Americans a 14 1/2-13 1/2 victory.
Experience will help defuse some of the anxiety but there is no escaping the pressure that has come to characterise the Ryder Cup.
"Experience is a big key this week, just knowing what to expect I suppose," said McDowell. "Just leave nerves on the first tee.
"It's such an amazing golf event and there's no doubt, the emotions that go with kind of the 12th match on a Sunday afternoon.
"It was fun to be able to do it; and the aftermath and the 17th green when everyone swamped that green, it was something like I've never seen in golf before, and cool to be a part of."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)