FROM the yawning chasm of Glendevon, looking north towards Auchterarder, it must have been quite a sight.
Thousands swarming across a former wilderness, roars echoing up into the Perthshire sky and, mercifully for those who have put so much time and money into making it all happen, a formidable lead for Europe heading into the final day.
When the 2014 Ryder Cup was awarded to Gleneagles all of 13 years ago, it felt like this day would never come, but here we are, with a final, climactic afternoon of singles about to unfold over the PGA Centenary Course. All that remains to be arranged is a victory for Europe which, in the circumstances, ought to be a formality.
Sure, their 10-6 lead is the same as the one they famously overturned at Medinah two years ago, but if yesterday’s golf is any guide, they will get the job done. There was bravery in the morning, when their 5-3 overnight advantage was cut to one, and brilliance in the afternoon, when they won three and halved the other.
More than anything, there was attitude, which Paul McGinley later said had been a key message of his captaincy. He was anxious to ensure that his players, runaway favourites beforehand, would not be guilty of complacency. Outside their team room hangs a picture of a rock in the ocean, together with the slogan: “We will be the rock when the storm comes.”
It came yesterday, and they responded. If it returns today, McGinley believes he has the men to stand firm once again. In a top-loaded running order, he has asked Graeme McDowell to lead the team out against Jordan Spieth. It is, says the captain, a decision he made two years ago, before he was even appointed.
“Big heart, big player, loves the big occasion,” said McGinley. “And you need a real fighter in that first game. That sets the tone for the day. That’s the guy that goes in with the first hard tackle in a soccer match. Graeme is that kind of guy.”
There were plenty like him yesterday. Ian Poulter produced some of his trademark histrionics for the first time this week. Justin Rose, whose fourballs victory alongside Henrik Stenson was sensational, added another point and half to the two he secured on Friday. And Lee Westwood secured his 23rd Cup point, surpassing the total of Seve Ballesteros.
But if there was a man of the match, it had to be Victor Dubuisson, portrayed last week as an “enigmatic loner” who hadn’t quite grasped the magnitude of the occasion. For the second time in two days, the 24-year-old French rookie partnered McDowell to victory, this time by a 5&4 margin against Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker.
The two were five under through 14 holes, quite a performance in the foursomes format. “I cannot say enough about how talented this kid is, how easy it is to play alongside him,” said McDowell. “He might be the best player I have played with since Rory McIlroy, and that is saying a lot. I really believe he’s the next superstar coming out of Europe. Watch out for him.”
From the moment the sun came up over Gleneagles, the atmosphere was different. Those who had queued from 6am to see the opening shots greeted them with more gusto than they had on Friday. The wind was lighter, the birdies more frequent and the cheers, hitherto muffled by mediocrity, reverberated out across the course.
Nowhere was there more of that than in the first game, which will go down as one of the Ryder Cup greats. Rose and Stenson beat Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar 3&2 in a match of such quality that the two pairings shared 21 birdies in 16 holes. “That’s something special,” said Stenson. “It might be a highlight to put on the big screen with the grand kids one day.”
Europe looked capable of extending their overnight lead, but gradually, a pool of red spread across the scoreboard. Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan were 4&3 winners against Jamie Donaldson and Westwood, who said that he and his partner had “run into a buzzsaw”. Then Spieth and Patrick Reed, the rookies controversially omitted on Friday afternoon, threw their captain’s decision back in his face with a 5&3 defeat of Thomas Bjorn and Martin Kaymer.
That cut Europe’s overall lead to one, leaving Poulter and Rory McIlroy with the job of keeping Europe ahead. Their match against Walker and Fowler had been thrilling, without the quality of the first one perhaps, but nonetheless dramatic. The Englishman’s poor form continued until, almost out of nowhere, he chipped in for a half at the par-4 15th. That triggered another of his eye-popping, chest-beating celebrations, followed by a birdie on the 16th that set up a half for Europe, as well as a one-point advantage at lunch. “Funny things happen,” said Poulter, whose reputation as Europe’s postman has been called into question lately. “Late delivery. Second-class post.”
Poulter sat out the afternoon foursomes, as did Stenson – who has a minor back complaint – and Stephen Gallacher, who will make only his second appearance of the week against Phil Mickelson in today’s singles. Neither Mickelson nor Keegan Bradley struck a shot yesterday, but Tom Watson, the USA captain, did not regret their omission. He said that his only mistake was asking too much of Fowler and Walker.
The afternoon session produced fewer birdies, thanks to a strengthening wind and the fatigue, both mental and physical, which was clearly setting in. Fowler and Walker, whose three previous matches had all gone to the 18th, were dead on their feet. On the third fairway, Walker was guilty of a hacker’s duff, matching his partner’s fluffed chip just before lunch.
As Dubuisson and McDowell took full advantage, Westwood and Donaldson polished off Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar by a 2&1 scoreline. McIlroy and Sergio Garcia were never behind in a 3&2 win against Furyk and Mahan.
It had been a thrilling, exhausting day. Michael Jordan, a cigar in each hand, joined Sir Alex Ferguson among the celebrities behind the ropes. The Americans, stars and stripes on their Christmas jumpers, came bearing gifts.
Late in the afternoon, Spieth’s miss from less than two feet on the 16th hole proved crucial in the match he and Reed had against Rose and Kaymer. When Rose holed a six-foot putt on the last to secure a half, it all but snuffed out any lingering hope for the Americans. “If we go on to win this Ryder Cup, that, to me, was pivotal,” said McGinley.