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Mixed bag for McIlroy

On a bright, still morning at Celtic Manor, the 38th Ryder Cup suddenly burst into life. The depression of Friday's torrents seemed to dissipate in the enthusiasm of a large attendance, who clearly revelled in witnessing sustained combat.

Challenging circumstances, never before seen in this biennial showpiece, meant action in a total of 16 matches yesterday. And the US opened up a 6-4 lead with six pairs matches -- two foursomes and four fourballs -- set to be completed this morning, prior to the closing 12 singles later in the day.

The reformatting of the last three pairs sessions into two, creating six matches per session, left the captains with a problem in covering all the partnerships. Colin Montgomerie's response was to draft in Jose-Maria Olazabal, a vice-captain at Valhalla two years ago. So it was that the seasoned Spaniard took the Molinari brothers under his wing, though without success.

Remarkably, the organisers estimated that the changed order saved anything between four and five hours in playing time. And with everyone in action, one suspects it saved Padraig Harrington from inactivity prior to the singles, given how disappointingly he played as Luke Donald's partner in fourballs. These, as it happened, were stretched over nearly 27 hours, almost as long as it took Rory McIlroy to make a significant impact on his Ryder Cup debut. But when he did, it was worth the wait.

Morning glory, however, was followed by bitter disappointment for himself and Graeme McDowell in the afternoon. One up after a conceded eagle on the par-four 15th, they lost the next two to stunning putts from Stewart Cink en route to an improbable defeat.

With delicious irony, Harrington's reprieve brought a stunning response in the more demanding format of foursomes, where his partner was Ross Fisher, the man who beat him for the 3 Irish Open title two months ago. After they started with a depressing double-bogey six, the Dubliner's first birdie of the tournament, albeit a shared effort, came when he holed a nine-footer at the par-four eighth.

Three further birdies culminated in victory on the 16th over Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson. And while Fisher talked afterwards of the honour of playing with a three-time major champion, the win meant very much more to his partner. "Obviously I was conscious of a lot of pressure, but Monty made a great decision in giving me the responsibility of looking after Ross," he said. "It forced me to dig deep. The crowds are wonderful and thankfully we gave them something to cheer about."

By way of endorsement, he and Fisher were kept together for the closing fourballs. In the two remaining foursomes, Donald's remarkable record of five wins from five in this particular format looks like being extended this morning in the company of Lee Westwood, while McIlroy and McDowell were deemed inseparable for the other one.

Overall, the prospect of facing the climactic holes, especially the long 18th with its water-fronted green, created a pressure reminiscent of PG Wodehouse and one of his golfing heroes. "Archibald was no average golfer," wrote Wodehouse. "A commanding lead for him would have been two up with one to play."

For his part, Sam Snead liked to watch his opponent's eyes. "Fear shows up when there's an enlargement of the pupils," he claimed. "Big pupils lead to big scores."

One imagines there was no enlargement of pupils for the partnership of Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker. With victories in the morning and afternoon -- they reached the turn in 32 in the foursomes -- they have now won six out of their last six together, starting in the President's Cup. Yet they were in deep trouble in last night's unfinished foursomes, four down to Donald and Westwood after nine, when play ended for the day.

Europe's iron men were Westwood and US PGA champion Martin Kaymer. They, too, won in the morning but had to settle for an afternoon half against Jim Furyk and Rickie Fowler. Either way, it reflected enormous credit on the Englishman, who was having his first competitive outing since the Open Championship in July, because of calf-muscle damage.

Meanwhile, Montgomerie remained a predictably dominant figure, with his now infamous quote from the 2008 Wales Open -- when he sardonically wished "good luck to the spectators" at the Ryder Cup -- getting a good airing. And having savoured the considerable financial benefits of being Ryder Cup captain, he proclaimed to the assembled media last Thursday: "This (venue) has really been first-class from the moment we came here. This isn't five or even six-star. This is seven-star and I hope you agree."

Clearly it depends on which side of the fairway ropes you happen to be. There was certainly nothing five, six or seven-star about the shambles of the opening day, when wonderfully stoic spectators deserved medals for braving the most difficult conditions imaginable.

The purpose-built golf course offers a fine challenge, especially for matchplay over the closing holes, but taking Celtic Manor as a whole, I have never encountered such a physically demanding sporting venue.

To get from the media centre to the shuttle compound up a steep hill of close on 150 feet, is a climb only for the young and super-fit. The alternative was to take a buggy-ride up to the clubhouse.

There, you waited for a bus to negotiate the remainder of the climb on a narrow road carrying the sign: "Steep gradient -- engage low gear."

Small wonder that the course couldn't take Friday's punishment, given the flow of water down those slopes. And ominously, the local forecast for today is: "Cloudy with a good chance for rain." Probably heavy.

All of which prompts the question as to why the European staging is fixed so late in the year as to make weather problems almost inevitable. George O'Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, argued here that bad weather can occur even in more southern climes, as happened at Valderrama in the 1997 Ryder Cup.

And regarding the Irish Open, he argued that dates were of little consequence, insisting that bad weather can happen anytime.

Yet conditions at the recent staging at Killarney in July, were immeasurably better than those for May stagings in recent years. In this context, it is interesting to note that Gleneagles, the venue for the 2014 Ryder Cup, was closed on Friday because of rain.

Spearheaded by the Espirito Santo Group, Portugal are among the countries bidding for the 2018 Ryder Cup and whatever about O'Grady's argument, it is commonsense that you have a far better chance of good weather on the Iberian Peninsula in October than in countries further north.

And an earlier date seems highly unlikely, given the influence of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem who, unlike his counterpart on the European Tour, has virtually nothing to gain for his Tour or his players from the Ryder Cup, compared with $65 million from the Fed-Ex Cup.

O'Grady's predecessor Ken Schofield, left us in no doubt as to the financial importance of the event. With the resumption of play on Friday afternoon meaning that no refunds would be made on £100 entrance tickets, what we're witnessing this weekend makes all the talk about the integrity of the event sound decidedly hollow.

American scribes could take a more lighthearted view, having been provided with splendid ammunition, like the players' porous wet-suits. Especially when Joe Steranka, chief executive of the PGA of America, made the sort of convoluted response of which a seasoned politician would be proud. "Yeah, we would have liked the rainwear to have performed better," he said, "and we have filled in accordingly and don't expect that that will be an issue going forward."

The fragmented fourballs delivered decidedly mixed fortunes for the Irish participants. Where Harrington gained the unwanted distinction of being the only player from either side not to register a birdie, McDowell and McIlroy rallied brilliantly for a halved match.

Going into yesterday morning, the positions were: Kaymer and Westwood 1 up on Mickelson and Stricker (after 12); McDowell and McIlroy 2 down to Cink and Matt Kuchar (after 11); Ian Poulter and Fisher level with Woods and Stricker (after 10); Harrington and Donald 1 down to Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton.

Though Harrington could take some comfort from the fact that rookie Overton putted brilliantly for an un-matched six birdies, he would still have felt the pain of leaving Donald to fight virtually a lone battle. What he desperately needed was the spark which transformed McIlroy on the short 17th.

They say that one good putt covers a multitude of sins. In the event, McIlroy's left-to-right breaking 30-footer for a winning birdie to square the match, instantly changed his demeanour from grim introspection to animated delight. And we were to get a charming insight into the closeness between himself and McDowell after the younger man had dumped a heavily-hit three-wood into water on the 18th. "I've got you covered," said the US Open champion with an arm on his shoulder. "It's all right."

At the top of the order, Kaymer and Westwood were always in command. But recognising the importance of the half-point from the Irish partnership, Montgomerie said: "That was vital for us. Finishing the session 2.5 to 1.5 certainly beats 3-1." There was still much golf to be played.

Sunday Independent