Sunday 18 March 2018

USA take control after McIlroy's heroics fail to fire Europe's challenge

Holywood man refuses to be intimidated by hostile crowds as he posts back-to-back wins

Rory McIlroy celebrates on the tenth green during the four-balls on day two of the Ryder Cup yesterday. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.
Rory McIlroy celebrates on the tenth green during the four-balls on day two of the Ryder Cup yesterday. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

The die is cast. Everything to play for after European defiance in the three sessions of play since that devastating 4-0 defeat in the morning foursomes on day one of the 41st Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National golf club in Chaska, Minnesota.

Darren Clarke's pre-event planning never envisaged that scenario, but how well he and his players responded to the hostile atmosphere they faced from the start of the action two days ago.

Europe took the Friday afternoon fourballs 3-1; then the Saturday morning foursomes 2.5 to 1.5; and finally came the 1-3 fourball reverse yesterday afternoon in the blazing sunshine watched by a crowd of 50,000 excited spectators.

USA took a one point lead into the last session of the team formats, and now face into the singles three ahead at 9.5 to Europe's 6.5.

This has been two days of great drama, some nastiness from over-exuberant, alcohol-fuelled fans, and above all, wonderful golf.

Character, skill, endurance, and mental strength have been tested to the limit on both sides, particularly by the team leaders on the European and USA teams.

The captains have led their teams well so far.

Davis Love III managed to give all his players a game on Friday.

Darren Clarke had six rookies on his roster, including Danny Willett whose brother ramped up ridiculous levels of pressure on the Masters champion with an ill-judged and insulting article about American fans.

Clarke held Willett back until Friday afternoon, and took a degree of risk in keeping newcomers Chris Wood and Matthew Fitzpatrick on the sidelines until yesterday morning's foursomes.

He got a 50-50 return for his decision on the debutants.

Wood teamed up with Olympic champion Justin Rose to win a precious point against US PGA winner Jimmy Walker and Zach Johnson, while Fitzpatrick performed well, but not well enough alongside Henrik Stenson.

The Claret Jug holder and his young sidekick were edged out 3&2 by a gritty display from Brandt Snedeker and Brooks Koepka.

Clarke shuffled his pack for the afternoon bringing Lee Westwood, who played poorly in the Friday foursomes with rookie Thomas Pieters, and Willett into the fray as partners.

The other side of the leadership equation came in a quiet moment between yesterday's sessions when he had to tell England's Andy Sullivan he would not get a game on Saturday.

Sullivan's first Ryder Cup start came in a foursomes pairing on day one with McIlroy.

He stumbled somewhat on the inward stretch. The team lost a 2-up lead with three to play against Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, and were beaten 1up.

Sadly for Sullivan, he did not get a chance to atone, but Clarke felt for the player.

"Nobody is more important than anybody else.

"Yes, no doubt, Rory, Henrik, JR, Sergio, Lee, Martin, all the senior guys; but in terms of the whole thing, everybody's exactly the same.

"That's what we are in the team room. Nobody's more important than anybody else.

"And the likes of Andy Sullivan who is sitting out this afternoon.

"He's absolutely gutted and I went in and gave him a big hug and said, 'I'm sorry, Sully,' but he understands, it's all about the team," said Clarke.

Chris Wood and Matt Fitzpatrick understood how Sullivan felt, as they had long hours to fill on Friday while the action took place elsewhere.

Said Wood: "It's part of being in a Ryder Cup Team where there's eight guys that are going to play and four are going to sit out.

"We're here as a team, and whatever Clarkey asks from us, we're there to do.

"All the vice captains and Darren, they all drilled into us, myself and Matt yesterday, that 'get yourself ready for tomorrow, because when you're asked to play, we want that point from you.'

"Obviously we'd love to play every game, but there's six rookies in this team that are inexperienced and need the time to get used to the Ryder Cup experience.

"Being on the first tee was a great idea obviously yesterday, seeing everybody tee off. We knew what was coming today."

And boy, did it come in spades. "U-S-A, U-S-A" at every shot by the Americans.

Sublime shots gave them plenty to cheer, particularly Patrick Reed's eagle-two on the sixth hole in the fourballs against European stalwarts Rose and Stenson.

Earlier, a heckler had a go at McIlroy as he moved from the seventh green to the eighth tee. The heckler shouted "McIlroy sucks" and made reference to Caroline Wozniacki, the Danish Tennis star who was formerly engaged to the golfer.

McIlroy wasn't letting that go. He stopped and moved towards the spectator, pointed him out and got him removed.

This is the spiky side of the Cup. With 50,000 fans out to enjoy themselves at European expense, it's no surprise some exchanges from the galleries go beyond the boundaries of fair play and good humour.

The American fans also cheered European mistakes, such as McIlroy's little slider that slipped past the hole on the 11th for a loss after Dustin Johnson birdied.

It still left McIlroy and Pieters three-up and another loss at 12 cut their advantage to just two holes.

Two birdies in quick succession by Pieters had the Europeans restored to 4-up.

On 15 Johnson struck back with a birdie three, and a Koepka birdie on 16 brought it back to two-up for the Europeans.

Happily for the away team, a Pieters birdie two ended the game 3&1.

"It was incredible. Just like yesterday in the fourball, we dovetailed really well all the way," said McIlroy.

Lee Westwood and his ISM management colleague Willett showed glimpses of the form that Clarke expected.

They faced JB Holmes and Ryan Moore in the second four ball contest.

Westwood had notched up four birdies, and Willett got three as they came to the 13th tee 1-up, but Westwood hoicked his tee shot into water on the 219 yards, par-3.

Willett safely found the green to no avail, as Holmes levelled the match with a birdie two.

He and Moore did just enough from there to get the point 1-up after Westwood missed from four feet on 18 to halve the match. Sergio Garcia was teamed with Martin Kaymer for the afternoon as the European captain rested Rafa Cabrera-Bello and broke up the Spanish partnership.

Kaymer did not fire on all cylinders and their opponents, Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar played solidly for a 2-up lead after 11 holes, but on the 12th, Garcia sensationally holed from 50 feet to cut the deficit to one.

It was the closest they got. Kuchar and Mickelson bounced back quickly to win the next two holes. Dormie three for the Yanks. A Kaymer birdie at the 16th only delayed the inevitable and it finished 2&1.

Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson were the rear gunners of the European team. They had a tough day at the office against a rampant Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth.

Rose and Stenson dragged the Americans back from 3-up to 1-up through 13 holes. They then fell back to 3-down after 15.

A Stenson chip-in to win 16 extended the affair until the 17th where Reed delivered the coup-de-grace for a 2&1 result.

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