The Irish duo fought to the last, having trailed their second-session match from the very first hole. It was not quite enough, as Mickelson and Bradley proved an irresistible force for the second match running.
Mickelson, making a US record ninth appearance in the contest set up victory with a laser of an iron shot off the 17th tee and although McIlroy made a birdie two, rookie Bradley capped a wonderful first day as a Ryder Cupper by sinking the three-footer to halve the hole and seal a 2&1 victory.
Bradley and Mickelson had birdied the first three holes as McIlroy parred to jump out into a three-hole lead that gave the Irish pair a standing count before they knew what hit them. It proved to be the start of a long slog to the final bell.
“They got off to a very fast start, and at the end of the day we just gave ourselves a little bit too much to do,” McIlroy said. “We started a little sluggishly. It was just a high to end this morning and then to try to get ourselves back for the afternoon, just didn’t start as well as we’d have liked.”
Ten hours earlier, the two Macs had got the 39th Ryder Cup off to a flying start with a 1-up victory in the morning foursomes over Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker, world number one McIlroy and 2010 Celtic Manor hero McDowell living up to their billing from captain José Maria Olazabal to go out and get the European charge up and running.
It was not exactly a statement of intent as they ground out a victory at the final hole in a grinding contest against redoubtable rivals but the point they put on the blue half of the scoreboard will not be devalued for that. There were flashes of brilliance and moments to make European supporters groan as their match with Furyk and FedEx Cup champion Federer ebbed and flowed over 18 holes.
In the end it was Snedeker, who launched an awful tee shot into the left-sided trees at the 18th from which the Americans could not recover. The job still need completing though, and both McIlroy, with a superb bunker shot, and McDowell, with a six-foot clutch putt, both played their part.
McDowell had done the same sort of thing under even greater pressure in Wales in 2010, at the 16th and 17th holes to clinch a point against Hunter Mahan to give Europe victory on home soil but this was just as thrilling a contest.
“That match to me just personifies The Ryder Cup,” McDowell said. “Myself and Rory played some great golf to go 3-up, and then you’re playing against two very gutsy players who clawed their way back to all square coming down the last two holes.
“I’m not sure if you’ll play two tougher holes, the finish to this course is very strong and we had stacked our team with this finish in mind. I wanted Rory hitting the tee shots on 16 and 18 and our strategy paid off.”
McIlroy said he could feel the momentum switch between Europe and the USA throughout the match.
“We just hung in, tried to get up and down on 17 and obviously a great up and down at the last. Fortunately for us, Brandt didn’t hit the best tee shots on the last and we took advantage.”
The second session was even more of a struggle as the greens firmed up. It was not even that they were playing badly in the better ball format but they had come up against a team running on adrenaline after a momentous victory in the foursomes over Europe’s undefeated pairing of Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia.
“We were trying to claw our way back and we played some good stuff on the way in but Keegan and Phil were just too strong this afternoon,” McIlroy said.