It might only have been half a point that the world number one and Sergio Garcia eked out against the odds in their match with Jimmy Walker and Rickie Flower yesterday evening but it signalled a huge shift in momentum for Paul McGinley’s side.
Just as importantly, after a morning loss on the final hole to Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley and a day of struggle with his new driver, the man with the target on his back finally deployed some body armour.
And on a day when 2008 captain Nick Faldo decided to brand Garcia as being “useless” with a “bad attitude” in the defeat at Valhalla, the pair enjoyed the last laugh by rallying from two holes down with three to play and prove their worth in spades.
For the Dubliner is the first European captain to enjoy a day one lead since Ian Woosnam led the team to the same 5-3 margin at The K Club eight years ago. Just two years later, on Faldo’s watch, Europe were outmanoeuvred by Paul Azinger and leaping to Garcia’s defence, team member Graeme McDowell last night referred to Faldo’s decision to sit the Spaniard and team mainstay Lee Westwood out from that Saturday afternoon’s session.
“You’ve got one of the best Ryder Cup pairings of all time being sat down on a Saturday afternoon of a Ryder Cup that we go on to lose. I’d say Sergio was fairly useless that afternoon, yeah, because he wasn’t able to play.”
It was diversion from the afternoon’s good work, that saw three wins and that halved match, but it served to underline the bond this team shares and McIlroy and Garcia will have slept easier having e contributed to the cause.
For now, as Europe head into this morning’s fourball session with a two-point lead that half-point from the world numbers one and three will do. The four-time major winner is up and running, buoyed by their rescue act over the last three holes against Walker and Fowler having reached the 16th two holes down and then watched the American rookie miss a 12-footer for the match.
Given their lifeline, McIlroy seized the opportunity, draining a 40-footer for birdie at the par-three 17th to make the halved match a possibility. Even Tom Watson said “wow”.
The golfing gods were with him, another errant drive on 18, in a round that saw the pair find just three fairways, saw McIlroy catch a huge break, bouncing off a tree and back into a favourable lie in the rough.
It still needed some brilliance from Garcia, his five-wood out of the thick stuff a thing of beauty to the back of the green. The eagle putt from 25 feet went very close, the Americans failed to close the deal and McIlroy and Garcia were off the hook, the team’s troubles from the morning fourballs erased.
“Garcia and McIlroy winning the last two holes was big,” Westwood said and McIlroy knew they had got out of jail.
“Sergio and I battled for all 36 holes out there today. It was a long day for both of us, and just glad that we were able to contribute something to the cause today.
“We had a close match this morning with Phil and Keegan, and it didn’t quite go our way. Didn’t feel like we should have lost the match, but at the same time, we did.
“Then the half against Jimmy and Rickie this afternoon, felt a little bit like a mini-victory to us, and definitely is a huge half in terms of momentum for the European team going into tomorrow. So for the team, it was huge, and I think personally for Sergio and I, just nice to be able to walk away from today with at least something. So great way to finish the session this afternoon, and Europe are in a nice position going into Saturday.”
McGinley said he had no issue with sending the pair back out for the afternoon session.
“Just because you go out and you lose a match in the Ryder Cup doesn’t mean you’re a bad partnership. You’re playing at the very, very elite level here in professional sport in our game of golf, and sometimes you can go out and it just doesn’t click. And it’s not because the dynamic between the two is wrong, but your games don’t match up, or there’s something big as to why you shouldn’t. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. So you dust yourself off and you go back out in the afternoon.
“They went back out and got away to a slow start again. But it just shows you the resilience to have the finish they did and pull a half out the way they did. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate putting them together again.”
It won’t happen this morning, with Garcia rested and McIlroy partnering Ian Poulter. McGinley will hope for better from McIlroy’s driver but he insisted he had no issue with his decision to put it in play for the first time this weekend. “I’m not going to second guess Rory. He’s the best player in the world and makes his own decision and I won’t have any decisions on what he makes with driver or not. That’s totally his call.”