Rory McIlroy had to wait until the sun was setting on an intense, sometimes exasperating but ultimately thrilling first day at the 40th Ryder Cup for his blue-chip partnership with Sergio Garcia to produce the spellbinding golf of which they are capable.
When it came, however, World No 1 McIlroy and No 3 Garcia exploded into spectacular action on the final three holes of their afternoon foursomes battle with Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker to clinch a half of huge import both to them and to Europe.
McIlroy and Garcia had performed poorly for the 33 preceding holes but each now takes into the weekend renewed momentum, strengthening considerably home captain Paul McGinley’s hand as he and his team try to build on a healthy 5-3 lead.
This advantage was founded on a European record haul of three and a half points from a foursomes session. McGinley commended his team for "terrific response" after the US hit them hard at the tail end of the morning fourballs, which the visitors won by two and a half points to one and a half.
Garcia will be rested this morning as McGinley sticks to a carefully drawn-up pre-match plan tailored to give his men the opportunity to keep their batteries charged through all three days.
So McIlroy plays with Poulter this morning in a repeat of the fourballs pairing that on Saturday afternoon in Medinah set Europe on the road to their miracle victory.
In measure of the strength in depth of McGinley’s team that several others eagerly stepped up to the plate as McIlroy and Garcia grappled for their game and English talisman Ian Poulter fell to a humbling 5&4 fourballs drubbing alongside Scottish rookie Stephen Gallacher.
Into the breach stepped the brilliant Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson yesterday, by clobbering Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson 5&4 in the morning fourballs, then following-up with a fabulous 2&1 defeat of foursomes specialists Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson, blitzing them with six birdies.
While England’s Rose and Swede Stenson were rock-solid in delivering four precious points to the cause, the performance of rising French star Victor Dubuisson at Graeme McDowell’s side in an outstanding 3&2 victory against Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley suggested this 22-year-old has a glowing future in the Ryder Cup arena.
Portrush man McDowell made absolutely no effort to conceal his excitement about Dubuisson’s potential, saying: “This kid, I’m telling you, he’s the next superstar in Europe. I have played with some truly great partners at this event, including Rory McIlroy, and this guy is really, really, really good.”
A particularly convincing performance was delivered by another rookie, Jamie Donaldson of Wales, who in partnership with Lee Westwood played the PGA Centenary Course in four-under in demanding conditions to beat Jim Furyk and Matt Kuchar two-up in the first of the afternoon foursomes.
This helped spike the momentum the US had built before lunch. However, visiting captain Tom Watson also made an error upon which the outcome of this Ryder Cup might hinge by standing down his two tigerish Texan rookies, Jordan Spieth (21) and Patrick Reed (24) after they had belied their status as the youngest pairing in US history by demolishing Poulter and Gallacher.
Spieth and Reed weren’t pleased, as Watson admitted. “They were very upset with me for not playing them this afternoon. I said ‘I know you’re going to be mad at me but you’ll be playing tomorrow for sure.”
The US captain's decision to send-out Bradley and Mickelson for the final foursomes match was understandable on the basis of their three straight victories at Medinah.
Yet, aside from the fact that his tendency to miss fairways is not ideal for foursomes, Mickelson's not the athlete he was two years ago. Though he won the 2013 Open, his second-place finish to McIlroy at last month’s US PGA was the sole highlight of a jaded US PGA Tour campaign this year and, frankly, he looked as if he’d gone a round too far during the afternoon battle with Dubuisson and McDowell.
The morning showdown with McIlroy and Garcia was billed as match of the day, especially after the iconic American on Tuesday fired a fiery verbal barb at the young Irishman and, by all accounts, good naturedly took a stinging riposte from him at the following night’s Ryder Cup banquet.
Their fourballs confrontation, clinched by Mickelson with a gutsy up-and-down from a greenside trap for birdie at the last, was a true cliff-hanger, though at times it seemed as much thud and blunder as blood and thunder.
After lunch, McIlroy and Garcia conspired to find the most awkward place to put each other off the tee as they fell two behind Fowler and Walker with six to play.
Yet McIlroy sparked hopes of a fightback with a glorious chip that set up a saving birdie four at 16 then putted out spectacularly from 40 feet for the winning two at 17.
When McIlroy missed the fairway right by some 25 yards at 18, Garcia pulled the half-point out of the fire with the shot of the day, hitting a glorious five-wood from behind a tree, 229 yards to 30 feet to set up the two-putt birdie that clinched the morale-boosting half-point, ensuring their long, hard day ended on a high and not without fruit.
No question, McIlroy's wild performance off the tee throughout yesterday suggest he has an issue to resolve with his driving, if not his new Nike Vapor driver.
McGinley will not intrude in this process. "That's totally his call. I'm not going to second-guess Rory. He's the best player in the world and makes his own decision."
Yet with McIlroy's mojo restored by yesterday's thrilling finish, Europe are now ideally placed to wrap up tomorrow their eighth Ryder Cup victory in 10.
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