Europe’s Ryder Cup side were rising to the occasion yet again at the K Club today – with Darren Clarke and Sergio Garcia centre stage.
Clarke, playing less than six weeks after his wife Heather lost her cancer fight and hugged by his two opponents before teeing off, partnered close friend Lee Westwood to a last-green victory over Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco.
That gave Ian Woosnam’s men a two and a half to one and a half lead in the morning fourballs, an inspired Garcia winning with Jose Maria Olazabal, and when the foursomes started the Americans were soon in trouble again.
Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk, having beaten Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington in the opening game of the clash, trailed Garcia and Luke Donald, while Harrington and Paul McGinley led Chad Campbell and Zach Johnson.
It was only by one hole in each instance, however, and with the other two games level Tom Lehman’s team still had hopes of getting out of the day on equal terms at least.
By then Clarke was just a spectator, left out of the afternoon action along with Robert Karlsson, Paul Casey and Olazabal as Woosnam got his entire dozen involved, but he had already contributed to the cause and that meant the world to him.
Clarke, hugged by Mickelson and DiMarco in a wonderful gesture of friendship on the first tee, started with a birdie and then finished with two in three holes – even with tears in his eyes.
“I don’t know how I managed to do it, but I went flush-flush-flush on the first and made three,” he said.
“Phil and Chris showed great sympathy for me, as all the Americans have this week.
“It’s been very kind of them. This is not about animosity.”
There was an electric atmosphere even before the match began and the arrival of Harrington and Montgomerie on the first tee brought a huge roar.
Woods and Furyk were warmly received too, but having seen his partner hit a beauty of an opening drive the world number one hooked into the lake.
It was the worst possible start for him and he played the first seven holes in three over par.
Thanks to Furyk, who birdied the first and fourth, Europe were only one ahead at that point and that became one down when Woods’ five-foot birdie on the eighth was followed by a 25-footer from Furyk.
Woods was through the worst by then. He birdied the 11th and 12th and although Montgomerie won the 14th and Harrington the 16th after a superb wood over the river and onto the green halves on the last two gave the Americans victory.
It was Woods’ first win on the opening day since his very first game in 1997, while for Montgomerie it was only his third defeat in his last 19 games.
“We had a golden opportunity, but just didn’t hole anything,” said the Scot.
Woods admitted: “I didn’t warm up particularly and was struggling early, but Jim was solid.”
Behind them Casey and Karlsson took a three-hole lead by going to the turn in 31, the highlight being Casey’s three wood to six feet for eagle at the 568-yard fourth.
Cink and JJ Henry, like the Swede making his first appearance, were far from beaten, though. They birdied five of the next six and looked like going two up on the 16th.
Then came one of the pivotal moments of the morning. New World Match Play champion Casey made a 45-footer for birdie, Henry missed from under five feet and with the last two holes being shared the match was halved.
Both sides were round in seven under par 65s, but Garcia and Olazabal had been on course for better than that when they put Europe’s first win on the board with a three and two success over David Toms and Brett Wetterich.
The two Spaniards were out in 30, but rookie Wetterich’s two huge hits onto the green at the 584-yard 10th cut the gap to one.
Another crucial putt was Garcia’s 10-footer for a half in birdies on the next. The Americans both made a mess of the 13th and Garcia’s birdies at the 15th and 16th meant Europe were eight under when the game ended.
Lehman kept Scott Verplank and Vaughn Taylor sidelined for the whole day, but he needed something special from the eight he entrusted the foursomes to for Europe’s confidence to be dented.