Monday 16 December 2019

Miracle tree shot saves the day for McIlroy

World No 1 salvages his opening day at Gleneagles after getting knocked sideways by Phil Mickelson’s winning putt in the fourballs

Rory McIlroy fought back to avoid two losses on the opening day of the Ryder Cup
Rory McIlroy fought back to avoid two losses on the opening day of the Ryder Cup

Paul Hayward

The tree was looking after the world No 1. And he needed a bit of help from mother nature, even after his sensational 40-foot birdie putt on 17.

Without the ricochet on a hole McIlroy and Sergio García had already messed up once, in the morning fourballs, this summer’s Open and US PGA champion would have been looking at two straight defeats on the opening day. They might have called him the new Tiger Woods of Ryder Cup golf.

The forest was not his only friend. When McIlroy’s drive plopped back into the rough, García stepped up to fire one of the shots of the day: a five-wood, to within 25-feet of the pin. Two-down with two to play, the European amigos birdied the last three holes to snatch a half from Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler, who must have believed they were about to inflict a crushing blow on the home team’s most glamorous name.

Tom Watson’s men had already slapped Poulter down, silencing him 5 & 4 in the morning session. McIlroy, too, had been knocked sideways by Phil Mickelson’s winning putt on 18, where the Rory and Sergio show imploded.

Sometimes previews “the big themes“ go out of the window. The Americans were euphoric at inflicting so much damage on the two big dogs of the European side.

But McIlroy was hauled back from the brink by that tree and by García’s boldness. “We needed it, we were making life difficult for ourselves, and I don’t think either of us were playing from the fairways much,” McIlroy said as Walker and Fowler trudged off the 18th green. “But we went three-under for the last three holes and Sergio hit the shot of the day to get it to the green.” “I think there’s definitely a psychological blow,” Jordan Spieth had crowed about the defeats for Poulter and McIlroy on a slow-burning morning.

Poulter, he said, was “the Ryder Cup wizard for the Europeans,” and the Americans had been queuing up to stomp on his magic box.

McIlroy left the course with only half a point from two matches, but the final scene with García was inspirational, potentially contest-changing. It set the scene for Victor Dubuisson and Graeme McDowell to defeat Mickelson ad Keegan Bradley, and helped Europe to a 5-3 overnight lead. Paul McGinley, their captain, said: “There was no over-reaction to what happened this morning, They [McIlroy and García] went out this afternoon and they rectified, to a large extent. That half was like a win.” With that flourish, McIlory also ensured that the day’s abiding image would not be the grudge-match loss to Mickelson. With one neat phrase at 7.30am, the man from Holywood had confirmed it would be tense out there between him and Big Phil. Did Mickelson’s “litigation” tease add spice?

“Of course it does, of course,” replied McIlroy.

But the trial of nerves went Mickelson’s way, with a short putt on 18 to seal an American four balls lead of two-and-half to one-and-a-half before McIlroy and García snatched a 30-minute break and then moved on to Walker and Fowler. â Mind games’ did not determine the four-ball outcome so much as some crazy golf on 18 from the European pair.

Eight holes into the round, Mickelson was throwing his arm round McIlroy on a buggy. Lefty smiled. Rory smiled back. Those who saw the exchange thought it lackedâ ¦well, sincerity. Mickelson was doubtless trying to spook Europe’s poster boy. The picture caption might have been:  I embarrassed you earlier, but now we need to be friends, because the cameras are on us.’ The subtext of Mickelson’s remark about the legal wrangle involving McIlroy and Graeme McDowell was that the Americans are sick of the European blood brother boasting. Mickelson was trying to drive a wedge.

So far, so tasty, but then the pair had to actually play some golf. The Perthshire hills were softened by overnight rain and bright autumn light as puffs of smoke from the cigar of Miguel Angel Jimenez followed the day’s best match along the fairways.

After a nervy, inauspicious start by all four players it was García who brought the round to life, chipping in from a greenside bunker at the fourth. The two Europeans were back in their element: back at Medinah.

Rushing ahead to the fifth tee, McIlroy imitated the reactions of the crowd, clenching his fists and yelping to recreate the scene.

What was an appropriate tag line for this round? How about: “See you in court!” or “Litigate this!” In the glorious morning light you could see the generational and temperamental difference between Mc and Mick: McIlroy sharp and young in his black slacks and zip-top, Mickelson bigger and comfortably middle-aged in his pinstripe trousers and navy and white windcheater.

Mickelson and Bradley turned up the gas, surging to a two-hole lead with a Mickelson birdie at nine and another from Bradley at the par-three 10th.

But they surrendered that gain with successive bogeys and fell behind with a third at 15, before a brilliant eagle by Bradley at 16 set the stage for the win on 18, courtesy of Mickelson’s two-foot putt.

Sent out for the morning four balls in the anchor role, rather than as lead hitter â “ his preferred position â “ McIlroy watched Poulter and Stephen Gallacher collapse to the rookies Patrick Reid and Spieth, and Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson destroy Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson. Thomas Bjorn and Martin Kaymer meanwhile halved their match with Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker.

The volatility of Ryder Cup golf complicates McIlroy’s quest to dominate this transatlantic duel the way he has this summer’s majors. First he had Mickelson’s arm round him. Then, on the 18th, Big Phil’s hand was at his throat. But like something from a children’s story, a tree intervened to help his day end sweetly.

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