Monday 26 June 2017

Harrington catches 40 winks as chaos rains

AT CELTIC MANOR

A DAY that dawned with Europe's vast army of supporters singing merrily in the rain ended more than 12 hours later with their Ryder Cup heroes grimacing with frustration in the gloaming as Stewart Cink, of all people, led a spirited recovery by Corey Pavin's US team.

Cink, comically overlooked by Pavin introduced his team during Thursday's opening ceremony, ensured that his captain is unlikely to forget him in future by sinking an astonishing series of putts, which threatened to wreck Rory McIlroy's hopes of winning on his Ryder Cup debut.

McIlroy and his fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell trailed Cink and US rookie Matt Kuchar by two holes at dusk with seven to play on an intensely frustrating opening day, which was cleaved into two distinct halves by torrential rain.

contented

Colin Montgomerie and his men had been contented as they led their American rivals in three of the opening fourballs and trailed in just one when the combatants were forced off the waterlogged Twenty-Ten Course at 9.42 for a seven-hours-plus hiatus which would stretch the patience of the unfortunate rain-sodden fans.

However, when the rain eventually stopped, allowing play to resume at 5.0, the Americans, able to cast off the ludicrously porous wet suits in which they'd risked drowning at dawn, simply played with a new sense of purpose and turned the session on its head.

Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, who'd been two up though five holes of their opening game with rookie Dustin Johnson and a subdued Phil Mickelson when the weather closed in, managed to stay in front, but only just, at day's end.

US PGA champion Kaymer, who'd leaned heavily on the imperious Westwood on his first handful of holes in the Ryder Cup arena as the deluge turned Celtic Manor into a hopeless, unplayable quagmire, gave a far better account of himself in the evening.

Yet after a bogey at six left the US wallowing three behind, Mickelson suddenly began to play like a reigning Masters champion, racking up a brilliant hat-trick of birdies that the German countered with two of his own to preserve Europe's one-hole advantage through 12 in the top match.

As McIlroy and McDowell fell behind in the second game, Luke Donald and Dubliner Padraig Harrington still trailed hugely impressive rookies Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton by one hole after a sweet birdie by the Englishman brought their day's work to a close on eight.

Similarly, Ian Poulter had to hole a phenomenal birdie putt from over 20 feet at the par-three 10th to bring himself and Ross Fisher back to parity with Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker in the third game.

The English duo had led by one through three when good sense prevailed and the players were called ashore in the morning. But like so many others on the European team, not least McIlroy, they'd be frustrated on the resumption by a frustrating series of missed putts.

In spite of the appalling weather, the day began brilliantly for Europe as the 2,000 fans crammed into the horseshoe stand around the first tee hailed them with deafening chants borrowed from soccer.

When the Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco, appeared 20 minutes early to savour the atmosphere and offer support to the eight Europeans scheduled to play, the crowd struck up with "there's only two Molinaris".

Any Americans who came into view were noisily asked "Who are ya, Who are ya, Who are ya?" and even though there were cheers when Johnson carved the opening tee shot of the Ryder Cup into the right rough, otherwise the crowd was impeccably behaved.

McIlroy was introduced to the full hair-raising potential of an event he used describe as "an exhibition" from the moment he and McDowell strode onto the tee.

The two Ulstermen high-fived with excitement as they stepped into an atmosphere as electric as anything they'd encountered on frequent visits to Old Trafford, home of their beloved Manchester United.

US Open champion McDowell drove first and found the heart of the fairway, while McIlroy, with adrenalin plainly pumping through his veins, blazed his opening tee shot right of the fairway.

unbelievable

"It was unbelievable," said the youngster. "I've never experienced anything like that at a golf tournament before. I was just happy to make contact with the ball down the first and had a good partner to rely on for the first hole or two."

Indeed he did. The Holywood youngster is the hottest prospect in golf but McDowell, older by 10 years at age 31, was very much the senior partner in this two-ball as he helped McIlroy find his feet in the game's most intimidating arena.

He won the first hole in par and after Cink surprised even himself by sinking a staggering 50-foot putt for the birdie at three, which brought the US level, McDowell performed a magical up-and-down from a desperate plugged lie in a rain-sodden greenside bunker at four to restore the advantage.

The American duo showed their true mettle as sportsmen when they shrugged away an opportunity to force McDowell to replay that miracle shot after the Portrush man had played out of turn, Cink getting bitter recompense for this noble act when he missed from inside four feet for a half.

Yet the 2009 British Open champion would be richly compensated later on as he holed out with an amazing series of long putts for birdies at holes five, seven and 10, followed by a great chip to five feet from deep green-side rough for another birdie at the par-five 11th.

McIlroy showed the first real flash of his true talent with an equally deft chip from the same jungle rough moments earlier but he went on to miss his five-foot putt and had no birdies on his card at the day ended.

Harrington was so intent on lining up his opening drive that he failed to hear the loud call from a spectator in the stand immediately behind him. "Show us the real Paddy power," roared an Irish voice, but the Dubliner's eyes were set on a distant horizon.

Rarely has Harrington appeared as intense. He nodded as Monty had a quiet final word with him on the tee but you knew none of it registered.

Yet, in his desire to justify his captain's faith and that controversial wild card he'd been given, Harrington failed to rediscover the hot form he'd shown in practice at Celtic Manor, which has been a regular failing in a deeply frustrating season for the Irishman.

He pull-hooked his opening drive left of the first fairway and showed how scrambled his senses were in the maelstrom by hitting his 224-yard approach into the group ahead, his ball going perilously close to Stricker as it zipped through the green.

Two behind after two as Watson and Overton made nonsense of their rookie status by each landing sweet birdies on the opening holes -- the latter remarkably putting out from the foot of a mound though the back of the first green -- Harrington and Donald still looked polished and composed enough at day's end to turn the match around this morning.

One only hopes the Dubliner slept as soundly last night as he did on the European locker-room floor for much of that seven-hour hiatus.

The Ryder Cup,

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Irish Independent

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