Thursday 23 November 2017

Westwood falls victim to 'guillotine' 18th hole

Celtic Manor's daunting run-in proving a real nightmare, writes Kevin Garside

That is not a flag marking the 18th hole but a guillotine. Risk and reward does not do the design of this monster justice. Death or glory was the cliche it bore as the Ryder Cup swung towards America.

Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer had led from the second hole in the afternoon foursomes, twice stretching the advantage to two. In the two games ahead, Europe had laid down. The crowd banked high to the right of the 18th fairway and behind the green had just witnessed the demise of the Molinaris, so the sight of Westwood on the 18th tee with a one-shot lead sent a tremor through the mud.

Water protects the front of the green, so the choice comes down to laying up or taking on the pond. A rearward pin killed adventure, putting the wedge in the hands of last week's 10-million-dollar man, Jim Furyk, and Westwood.

Poor Lee. He saved his worst for last here with a clubbed approach. Rickie Fowler gorged on Furyk's approach and romped through the door marked sweet shop. The half felt like another defeat for Europe.

The 18th provides the signature flourish at the end of four holes that stand apart in this manor and which might yet emerge as the greatest closing sequence in matchplay golf. They call it the stadium section. We leave the faux lakes and Americana of the 14th hole for the side of a Welsh hill. An old cart track and a whole golfing culture stands between the closing stretch and what has gone before.

It was tempting to say Celtic Manor fought back as one tracked across this ancient landscape, but the appalling scheduling that shoved the Ryder Cup into the Welsh autumn would not allow this.

A decade ago Bernie Ecclestone bloodied the nose of the owners of Silverstone by forcing upon the hosts an April date for the British Grand Prix. Posh vehicles were being heaved out of the car parks by bulldozers, and not all of them got out.

Much of this sodden Eden was not fit for the hooves of goats let alone the Hunter wellies of the Ryder Cup wives. Ecclestone classified Silverstone as a country fair masquerading as a world-class event. He would not have landed his helicopter here.

The 15th sets up as a par four but for those willing to target the gap in the trees, the green is drivable. On Ryder Cup Saturday there is only one option. Wind the centuries back and one can imagine the welcome waiting in the woods for the conquering Romans on the case of the Celts.

Not this day, not with the Molinari brothers the visitors. The cheer that greeted Francesco's arrowed drive shook needles from the pines.

From the 16th tee the golfers come up the slope at Cheltenham, while a vast wall of muddy humanity clings to the side of nature's banking. This is where the Molinaris squared their match against Zach Johnson and Hunter Mahon, courtesy of an American hash in the greenside bunker.

The 17th is where Johnson struck back, a 211-yard par three with a green that slopes right to left. His putt slid across the carpet and dropped from 12 feet. Even Raymond Floyd jumped at that one.

Ninety minutes later Stuart Cink rammed a stake into the hearts of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell from 25 feet after G-Mac had stiffed his iron to eight feet. McIlroy missed left and a match Europe were leading on the 15th tee was suddenly slipping away.

Earlier in the day nature rewarded the fourballs closing out Friday's wash-out with an Arthurian morning of mists and dew. It was the least it could do.

There was a fluffed chip from Tiger Woods in the banking above the 18th green. He ended up there because the pin position demanded he have a go off a down slope with a three wood.

The chip was vintage 18-handicap. It didn't matter. Steve Stricker was six feet from the pin. He doesn't miss from there.

At the same hole Cink and McIlroy both found the drink with fairway woods, and both saw wedges spin back off the green to the same watery resting place. Oohs all around. McIlory caught his three wood flat off the up slope. Had he found the green it would have been a certain point to complete a marvellous recovery from two down with six to play.

Europe were still grateful for the half ultimately made possible by the monster 30-footer holed by McIlroy at the 17th, which stoked the day's first episode of Ryder Cup mania and a primal scream from the boy.

This being the Ryder Cup, it was also the hole where McIlroy combusted later in the day.


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