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McIlroy insists Poulter birdie blitz keeps Ryder Cup within reach

EUROPE’S Ryder Cup army were singing their hearts out as they left Medinah Country Club last night, while the mood in the team room was crackling with optimism, all of it inspired by the brilliant, bloody-minded defiance of Ian Poulter.

The irrepressible Englishman set off a veritable firework display with a spectacular five birdie finish which clinched a one-up victory over Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson in the final Saturday fourball.

His playing partner Rory McIlroy described Poulter’s effort as “incredible, really incredible”, insisting Europe’s players still fancied their chances of holding onto the Ryder Cup.

Even a cursory glance at the line-up for today’s final session of 12 singles matches in Chicago makes it plain how difficult it will be today for the European team to gather the eight points they need to at least tie the 39th Ryder Cup with the USA and retain than precious little gold trophy.

Yet at least they can go into battle today with what Olazabal described as “belief”, principally because of precious points won in the final two fourball matches, which kept Europe to within four of the opposition.

Of course, as Davis Love’s US side leads by 10-6, they need only four and a half points to win the Ryder Cup and, looking at the current form and quality of the players at the top of today’s playing order, they certainly must be rated as favourites to pull it off.

Only one team has come from 10-6 down to win the Ryder Cup – in 1999, when Ben Crenshaw’s US players were roared to victory by vociferous home support at Brookline.

Interestingly, Tiger Woods goes out last at No 12, immediately after Steve Stricker, the playing partner with which Woods lost all three matches so far at Medinah. The former World No 1 plays Francesco Molinari, the Italian he beat 4 and 3 in singles at Celtic Manor.

So the world will have to wait at least another two years for a Ryder Cup confrontation between Tiger and his successor as the world’s best player, Rory McIlroy, who instead meets Keegan Bradley of the ‘Thousand Yards Stare’ in an intriguing clash.

Love has loaded the top of the order with the four players who inspired the massive home support at Medinah by winning every game they’ve played. They are Masters champion Bubba Watson, June’s US Open-winner Webb Simpson, Bradley and the veteran he inspired, Phil Mickelson at No 4.

Graeme McDowell, the Ryder Cup match-clincher at Celtic Manor Watson faces a tough fellow-grinder in Zach Johnson in the mid-order. Johnson beat Harrington in Wales but lost to Darren Clarke an emotional climax at the K Club in 2006.

Luke Donald plays Watson in the top match, while Poulter, who has beaten Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker and Chris Riley in his three singles matches to date, faces a real humdinger against Ryder Cup rookie Simpson.

Donald underscored his return to top form yesterday by hitting the shot of the 2012 Ryder Cup to two feet, inside a stunning effort by Tiger, as he and Sergio Garcia rounded-off a splendid 1-up success in the penultimate fourballs match.

Yet Poulter was the undisputed hero, his fighting spirit reminding Olazabal so much of his former mentor Seve Ballesteros, he suggested “I think the Ryder Cup should build a statue for him. He’s such a special character, he thrives at this event.

“I’m sure when Seve looks down on us, he must have been proud of what he saw today,” added the captain. He confirmed his players would line out in the legendary Spaniard’s Sunday colours today, navy blue and white with Seve’s silhouette on the shirts.

Poulter and McIlroy were two down through 12 and struggling to sink putts when the 23-year-old Ulsterman brilliantly holed a tricky 18-footer for birdie on Medinah’s signature hole, the par three 13th.

Suddenly, something clicked inside Poulter and he embarked on a sensational scoring spree, defying crushing pressure to sink a series of putts from improbable distances, culminating in a 15-footer at 18 for victory as the light faded.

“When Poults gets that look in his eyes, especially the week of the Ryder Cup, it’s really special,” said McIlroy. “We were struggling to get anything going. We needed a little spark, a chip-in, a holed putt or even a missed putt by them. Anything.

“Thankfully, I was able to make that birdie on 13 and he just took over from there. It just nice to have such a great partner,” added the Holywood hero, who believes the Ryder Cup’s still within their grasp.

“Of course there’s a chance,” he insisted. “Each of us has to go out there in the singles and believe we can win our match.

“It’s going to be weird for them as well, getting split up. They’ve had a couple of really strong partnerships and now that they’re not playing together any more, it’ll be different for them. So hopefully we can take advantage of that, get a few points on the board early and put them under pressure.”

McIlroy’s regular playing partner, McDowell was rested after the morning foursomes, in which the Ulster duo were beaten one-up by Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker, the pair they’d pipped in the opening Ryder Cup session 24 hours earlier.

“This could be massive for us,” said McDowell amid the bedlam stirred around the 18th green by Europe’s two closing victories. “Four points behind going into the singles, we need a huge day tomorrow but it is a possibility.”