Kilkenny’s Mark Power and Kinsale’s John Murphy played a key role as Great Britain and Ireland went toe-to-toe with a powerful USA squad and were unlucky to trail 5-7 after the opening day of the 48th Walker Cup at Seminole Golf Club in Florida.
With 14 players and both captains levelled by a stomach bug at some stage of the week and the R&A and USGA agreeing to allow the alternates to step in to play should one of the original 10 on either side fall ill, the oldest team matchplay event in golf did not disappoint.
The USA are red-hot favourites but they were held 2-2 in the morning foursomes where Murphy (22) and Power (20) twice came back from three down to beat Quade Cummins and Austin Eckroat 1 up as Angus Flanagan and alternate Jake Bolton edged out veteran Stewart Hagestad and William Mouw with a birdie at the last.
All four foursomes went to the 18th but Great Britain and Ireland were disappointed just two singles went the distance in the afternoon as the home side regrouped to win the session 5-3, claiming three crucial points thanks to wins at the treacherous par-three 17th and take a priceless two-point lead heading into the final day.
The sides play will play four morning foursomes followed by 10 singles in the race to reach the magic number of 13.5 points required for outright victory.
While there are 14 points up for grabs, Stuart Wilson’s Great Britain and Ireland side need to emerge from the foursomes with no more than a two-point deficit if they were to have a realistic chance of shocking the red-hot favourites and winning for only the third time on US soil.
“It’s been a hard-fought day,” Wilson said. “The result is probably tighter than it would suggest. The guys are doing a great job and if we can tidy up a couple of things, it will be all to play for tomorrow.”
He added: “No 17 was playing really tough today and I didn’t see anybody hit the green, so we will talk about wee things like that to keep the momentum going, hit the greens and hole the putts. It always comes down to the putting.”
Former Ryder Cup-winning captain Paul McGinley gave the team some pointers on Wednesday and after watching the action yesterday, he’s not ruling out a shock win for the visitors if they can emerge from the morning session with something positive.
“The foursomes tomorrow is important, they can’t fall any further behind,” McGinley told Sky Sports. “Two points behind going into the singles is going to be difficult but three points is going to be incredibly difficult. So if they can get 2-2 in the morning or even win half a point extra and eat into the US lead, you can reverse the pressure on the Americans.
“They are going to be going in as favourites tomorrow but if you start winning the first few matches, as we saw [in the Ryder Cup] at Medinah [in 2012] then the guys down the bottom are thinking, ‘Oh, I didn’t think my match was going to count and this would be all over by now’. Now the American team is under pressure.
“This is far from over. I am a big believer and make no apologies for using the word momentum. It is so critical to this. So the big key is how the team is put out and it’s important the guys at the front of the order get off to good starts.”
Alex Fitzpatrick and Power are the two strong men in the GB&I side and the Kilkenny talent never trailed at number two in the singles as he beat Davis Thompson (21) 3&2.
While Murphy lost 3 and 1 to Cole Hammer, he forced the hugely experienced Texan to work hard for his win, coming back from five down at the turn to take the match to the 17th.
The Cork man, who plans to turn professional this summer, knocked in a six-footer for a winning par at the 10th to get back to four down, then took the 12th in par before stiffing his tee shot at the par-three 13th to reduce the gap to just two holes.
He then hit a wonderful cut up wedge to halve the 15th in par but after missing a lightning-fast eight-footer to win the 16th and reduce the gap to just one hole, he found sand at the 17th and couldn’t keep his recovery on the green.
Great Britain and Ireland looked set to win the top match but Fitzpatrick double-bogeyed the par-three 17th and lost tight top match 2 up to Pierceson Coody.
With Ben Schmidt falling 5&3 to Ricky Castillo and Ben Jones beaten 4&3 by William Mouw, things looked grim as the Americans took three of the top four matches.
But Great Britain and Ireland managed to take two of the last four points with Matty Lamb beating Cummins 2&1 and Barclay Brown beating John Pak 2&1.
The highlight of the morning foursomes session was Power and Murphy’s dramatic comeback to beat Quade Cummins and Austin Eckroat 1 up.
The Irish duo lost the first two holes and the par-three fifth to find themselves three down and while they won the seventh and eighth with pars to reduce the deficit to just one hole, they were soon three down again. The Americans claimed the ninth in birdie and were gifted the 10th in par when Power was one of three GB&I players to pull his tee shot into a lake.
They were still three down through 12 holes but stuck with their strategy of hitting fairways and greens.
After winning the 13th in par, they took the par-five 14th and 15th holes in birdie-par figures to square the match.
All four foursomes were all square at that stage but Power and Murphy nipped in front when the Americans found sand right at the par-three 17th and failed to escape at the first attempt.
Power lagged their birdie putt close to put them ahead in the match for the first time and they closed it out at the 18th when Murphy found the front of the green with his approach and eventually brushed in a three-footer for a winning par.
“I think I said to Mark both times, I just said, we're playing great, we just have to stick to what we're doing,” Murphy said of those three hole deficits.
“We got a couple bad breaks early on, but let's not try and force anything. We're playing great; this is a golf course of mistakes so let's let them make the mistakes, and I think we stuck to our game plan really well and stayed patient, and proud of Mark here.”
The Irish duo first played together in the Munster Under 15's in Macroom and went on to play together for Ireland.
“Yeah, it's amazing,” Power told Golf Channel after their foursomes win. “We played together when we were 15 and 16, five, six years ago now, and just on the first tee, we were like, we're just going to enjoy today because look how far we've come, and why shy away from the challenge and just embrace it, and God, we stuck to it today.”
Gesturing to Murphy, Power added: “The old head in the group, he calmed me down and just said, look, just hit the fairways, hit greens and we'll wear these guys down, and that's what we did.”