Saturday 24 June 2017

Euro stars swinging in the rain

Rory McIlroy gestures to the crowd as he leaves the 15th hole with team-mate Graeme McDowell at Celtic Manor yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Rory McIlroy gestures to the crowd as he leaves the 15th hole with team-mate Graeme McDowell at Celtic Manor yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Karl MacGinty

MONTY'S magnificent mudlarks yesterday restored the credibility and integrity of the Ryder Cup as they swept to within five points of regaining one of the most coveted trophies in sport.

Out of a deluge and in spite of astounding incompetence, this Ryder Cup will forever be remembered in Europe for one of the most exciting and accomplished Sunday afternoon performances by a dozen of the continent's greatest golfers.

And we still have today's 12 singles matches to come. Yes, for the first time since it was first played in 1927, the Ryder Cup will be completed on a Monday. One suspects those 45,000 ticket-holders royally entertained on the Twenty-Ten course yesterday will be sorely tempted to skip work or school today after witnessing Colin Montgomerie's players rise splendidly to their captain's demand on Saturday evening for "more passion".

The US team, which had led by six points to four after Saturday's second session, was throttled yesterday as Europe won five of six matches and fought back for a courageous half in the other.

The visitors were caught in a vicious circle -- as the home crowd roared its approval at every birdie during yesterday's blitz, they lifted their heroes to even higher levels of achievement.

Vicious

Amid this splendid cacophony, one almost forgot the outrageous folly of staging an open air sports of this magnitude in a Welsh river valley in October.

Yet one cannot overlook the fact that the 38th Ryder Cup came perilously close to even further ignominy as health and safety officials seriously considered the option of completing yesterday's third session behind closed doors.

As Sunday dawned to further torrential rain, the sodden-banks, terraces and mud-choked walkways at Celtic Manor went within a whisker of being declared unsafe for the general public, Montgomerie revealed last night.

Would the European players have been able to reverse the 6-4 lead Corey Pavin's accomplished team had built up during the opening two sessions without their priceless "13th man"?

All of Monty's players, from the six rookies all the way up to their on-field leader, Lee Westwood, flourished in the frenzied atmosphere as they stormed into a three points lead.

The third session actually started on Saturday evening and, since they led all six matches as darkness fell, Westwood posted a stern warning on the locker-room door, reminding his team-mates: "team USA are going to come out fast, make sure we come out faster."

The Englishman would lead by deed as well. He and Luke Donald were already four-up on Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker through nine holes as their foursomes match resumed at lunchtime -- and Westwood immediately set the tone by ramming home a 60-foot birdie putt on the 10th green to knock the two Americans even further back on their heels.

Stricker and Woods had been unbeaten in their opening two games at Celtic Manor but they were crushed 6&5, Tiger's morale visibly draining with each missed fairway, green and putt.

Westwood will rise to No 2 in the world rankings this weekend and, under the convoluted points system, could actually elbow Woods off the top if he stayed idle over the next fortnight -- instead, he'll try and win this signal honour at this week's Dunhill Links Championship.

That phenomenally talented Ulster partnership of Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy swept in next with two fantastic birdies in the final three holes of their 2&1 foursomes defeat of Zach Johnson and Hunter Mahan.

This first win at the Ryder Cup victory represents a significant milestone for a pairing which Paul McGinley, among many others, fully believes might one day reach the same heights as Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal.

McIlroy (21), one of the most naturally talented young players in world golf, last year controversially dismissed the Ryder Cup as an "exhibition" -- but now knows the error of his ways after experiencing its "fantastic" atmosphere.

The Holywood youngster had his fair share of adventure and no little drama over the opening three days, especially on the green at the par three 17th hole.

He landed a 30-foot putt there on Saturday morning as he and McDowell fought back for a priceless half point in fourballs against Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar and then missed a critical five-footer as the Irish duo surrendered a one-hole lead over the final three holes of their foursomes game on Saturday.

His putting wasn't as hot as his ball-striking yesterday -- one suspects the youngster, a little wound-up by the slow-play tactics of his two experienced opponents, Zach Johnson and Hunter Mahan, might have rushed one or two of those efforts.

Yet his 15-footer for the victory-clinching birdie at 17 yesterday was a master-stroke and will send McIlroy into today's singles showdown with Stewart Cink with his confidence soaring.

US Open champion McDowell describes McIlroy as "the most naturally talented golfer I have ever seen," but there was no escaping the key role he plays in this phenomenally exciting partnership.

McDowell's a class golfer and a pillar of strength as he proved in sinking the most important putt of the match with Johnson and Mahan -- not least the phenomenal birdie putt he made on 15 to keep the two resurgent Americans at arm's length.

When it comes to morale courage, few displayed it in as much abundance yesterday as Padraig Harrington and Francesco Molinari -- the latter's five-foot putt for birdie at 18 and a half against Cink and Kuchar was later was described by Monty as "one of the bravest acts" of an afternoon in which the Italian's putter had consistently let him down.

Yet the captain reserved special words of praise for Harrington.

After flourishing in the role of rookie Ross Fisher's 'minder' in their foursomes victory over Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson on Saturday, the Dubliner ran into a decidedly rough patch after hooking his drive into the water at the par five 11th.

For six holes, he struggled to keep his golf ball on line yet unstintingly served almost as a "super second caddie" to Fisher, helping the Irish Open and Volvo Match Play champion read the line of every one of the six putts he sank for birdie.

And despite his own difficulties, Harrington bravely drew his rescue club on the 17th tee and played a daunting fade shot into the heart of the green. Though he was further from the hole, he cannily advised Fisher to putt first, so Dustin Johnson, whose ball was on the Dubliner's line, would not get a read on Harrington's own birdie attempt.

Fisher sank that putt to clinch a 2&1 victory, his second in 24 hours with Harrington. "There's a reason why Ross played fantastically well," said the captain. "Because he had someone of Padraig's stature with him.

"There's been method in why I selected Padraig Harrington on this team. He spoke brilliantly last night in the team room. He's been brilliant off the course and he's been brilliant on it."

The Ryder Cup,

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Irish Independent

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