Europe turn up Hazeltine heat with gutsy fightback

Rory McIlroy roars with delight after holing an eagle putt to close out his afternoon win in the company of Thomas Pieters. Picture: PA

Rory McIlroy roars with delight after holing an eagle putt to close out his afternoon win in the company of Thomas Pieters. Picture: PA

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Team USA hold the lead but Europe have the momentum in the 41st Ryder Cup after an opening day of two distinct halves in front of a spellbound crowd at Hazeltine.

Bidding for an unprecedented fourth win in a row in the event, the visitors recovered manfully from losing the morning foursomes 4-0 to take the afternoon fourballs 3-1, making the score 5-3 in Minnesota.

It was the 11th time in the last 17 Ryder Cups that Europe had come out on top in the Friday fourballs and the stunning fightback has given them a chance of making history.

On the only other two occasions the opening session resulted in a whitewash - in 1947 and 1975 - the Americans went on to win.

“That’s the Ryder Cup and why the fans come to watch it,” said European captain Darren Clarke of the day’s events.

“Historically, Europe are better in the foursomes while the Americans are better in the fourballs but today it was completely turned on its head.

“The guys were disappointed how they played this morning but showed tremendous bravery, heart and desire this afternoon and I’m extremely proud of them.”

Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson led the fightback, bagging nine birdies in 14 holes as they beat Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed 5&4 to take sweet revenge for a morning defeat at the hands of the same home pairing.

“We didn’t really put a foot wrong tee to green this morning, but we didn’t make any putts,” said Rose after taking his Ryder Cup record to 11 points from 16 matches.

“But this afternoon was brilliant. We obviously got running and dovetailed really well.”

Concurring, Stenson said: “It makes it sweeter when you beat the guys you lost to in the morning, that’s for sure.”

This event, of course, was the one that saw Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal form a fruitful partnership - and it now has a new Spanish duo delivering the goods for Europe.

Sergio Garcia, making his eighth appearance in the event, and rookie Rafa Cabrera Bello proved a winning combination at the first time of asking.

They dovetailed every bit as well as Rose and Stenson - Cabrera Bello won the first and sixth with birdies before Garcia made three birdies in a row from the ninth - to beat J B Holmes and Ryan Moore 3&2.

The victory took Garcia’s haul in the event to 21.5 points out of 34 and he admitted: “I love it and this is very special for us.

“This guy (Cabrera Bello) was a rock out there and gave me so much confidence.”

Cabrera Bello added: “We are long-time friends and to make my Ryder Cup debut with Sergio was extremely special.”

Another superb afternoon performance for Europe was delivered by Rory McIlroy and rookie Thomas Pieters.

They were nine-under in beating Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar 3&2, with Pieters playing his part with three birdies while McIlroy made four before clinching the victory in style by rolling in a 20-foot eagle putt at the 16th.

McIlroy celebrated by taking a bow in front of a huge crowd around the green, admitting afterwards that it had been a sign of “just how much the Ryder Cup means to me”.

This is the four-time major winner’s second appearance in the event on US soil and he added: “This is definitely a little more hostile.”

For Pieters, the win was the perfect way to bounce back from a hammering he’d received along with Lee Westwood in the morning.

“This guy was incredible,” said McIlroy of the Belgian, who pipped Russell Knox and Luke Donald for the last of Clarke’s four wild cards. “He played so well.”

A delighted Pieters admitted: “It was good to get a game under my belt in the morning and I played well this afternoon. Now I can’t wait to get out tomorrow.”

The sole fourballs success for Team USA came from former SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge winner Brooks Koepka and Brandt Snedeker as they beat Martin Kaymer and Danny Willett 5&4.

“There’s nothing like the Ryder Cup,” admitted Koepka after becoming the first rookie on either team to get a point on the board as that success was delivered before the wins from both Cabrera Bello and Pieters.

Snedeker, who lost to Paul Lawrie in the singles when Europe pulled off their ‘Miracle at Medinah’ four years ago, heaped praise on his playing partner, saying: “Brooks played fantastic and it was an awesome win.”

Following his brother’s anti-American comments earlier in the week, Masters champion Willett was the target of some fans.

“It was anticipated,” said the Englishman. “There were a few little shouts in there, and bits and bobs. But hopefully they are all following me around so the rest of the lads can do their business.”

The scoreline after the first day is the same as it was when Love was also the Team USA captain at Medinah.

“They seemed to birdie every hole,” he said of Europe’s afternoon display. “We run into a couple of buzz saws.”

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