That Europe was faced with clawing back the third biggest deficit in Ryder Cup history at 9½ to 6½ down, and the United States would go into the Sunday singles matches with all the momentum behind them after winning Saturday night’s fourball session was in large part down to Clarke’s players’ failure to convert neutral or winning positions into points.
If the Europeans’ ‘Miracle at Medinah’ was inspired by anything four years ago in the Chicago suburbs, it was the fightback sparked by Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia and finished off by Ian Poulter, and a virtually redundant playing partner in McIlroy, that rescued a dire situation and transformed it into merely a perilous one.
Fast forward to Saturday night in Minnesota and it was the middle matches of the fourball session that swung things America’s way. McIlroy and Thomas Pieters, confirming that they are one of the partnerships that could carry Europe into the next Ryder Cup in Paris in two years, had continued their excellent form together with a victory in the top match while Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose could do nothing in the bottom match to equal the Herculean efforts of Patrick Reed, who reduced his partner Jordan Spieth to a virtual bystander.
Pieters was the Belgian youngster Clarke had stuck his neck out for by making him his third and final captain’s pick at the expense of successful PGA Tour performer Russell Knox, the Irish Open runner-up behind McIlroy who also finished 10th in the 2016 FedEx Cup standings on the PGA Tour.
Pieters, 24, more than vindicated his selection with his play alongside McIlroy and became the first European rookie to play all five sessions since 1999, winning three points before his singles match with JB Holmes, Clarke underlining his faith in the big hitter by sending him out third in a top-loaded playing order sent out to put early blue on the scoreboard and regain the initiative.
But Clarke’s other couple of picks were struggling to justify their selections by the skipper. Martin Kaymer had holed the winning putt in 2012 to seal the miracle comeback from 10-6 down at Medinah but even then he had been struggling to hold his own for Jose Maria Olazabal. He may have won a US Open at Pinehurst since but the experience Clarke was hoping the German would bring to bear on a team carrying six rookies was sorely missing over the first two days here.
Kaymer had been on the wrong end of heavy defeats on Friday alongside Sergio Garcia and then Danny Willett while on Saturday he was a passenger in the afternoon’s fourballs as Garcia battled vainly against the shimmying Americans Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar.
Garcia was certainly much more comfortable in the company of fellow Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello, the rookie, as they forged a partnership that should be another to become a mainstay in future Ryder Cups, certainly next time around.
Whether Lee Westwood will have a next time around as a player remains to be seen. His place on this week’s team had been the gift of Clarke, his closest friend on tour, but it had not been on the basis of good form, rather a stellar Ryder Cup record over 10 previous appearances which had placed him two points off Nick Faldo’s European all-time record of 25.
head of yesterday’s singles match with US rookie Ryan Moore, the 43-year-old was not holding up his end of the bargain with Clarke, failing miserably in Friday’s foursomes as he left Pieters to flounder, the body language of the Belgian visibly lifting when he partnered McIlroy that afternoon while Westwood asked to be stood down for the session in order to work on his game.
As admirable as that request was, it was hardly the message Clarke needed to hear from his pal after a 4-0 session wipeout and Westwood would not reappear until Saturday’s late fourball session.
His partnership with Danny Willett was called into question given that the successful Garcia-Cabrera Bello team was benched for the afternoon, but in fairness Clarke had been forced to submit his pairings midway through the morning foursomes session and the Spaniards had been trailing badly to Spieth and Reed.
The captain could not have known they would stage a remarkable comeback over the final six holes to cancel out the Americans’ four-hole lead and claim a half-point.
Regardless, Willett and Westwood were in and it was a real scrap with Holmes and Moore that the English pair should have won but for the wildcard’s woeful putting. Three times Westwood missed short putts over the closing holes. The last, at the 18th, was the most painful. Moore had won the 17th to send the US one-up and Westwood stood over a relatively straightforward three-footer at the final hole with an opportunity to halve the match. This was his chance to change the complexion of the session and its onward effect on the singles to come.
This was his chance to vindicate his captain’s faith. Westwood failed to take it, underscoring the dangers of mixing friendships with the business of winning Ryder Cup points.