Europe close gap to just one point at Hazeltine

Rafa Cabrera Bello shouts out after holing a birdie putt at the 17th in the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. Picture: Getty Images
Rafa Cabrera Bello shouts out after holing a birdie putt at the 17th in the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. Picture: Getty Images
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Europe’s fightback from a 4-0 first-session whitewash continued in the 41st Ryder Cup as they edged the second-morning foursomes to move within a point of the United States at Hazeltine.

Another thrilling session ended with Spaniards Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera Bello coming from four down with six to play to secure an unlikely half against Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth.

That saw Europe win the third segment 2.5-1.5 and made the overall score 6.5-5.5, keeping the momentum well and truly with Darren Clarke’s team as they try to become the first to claim victory in the event after getting off to the worst possible start.

“Obviously yesterday morning was not the start we were looking for, but there were still 24 points to play for,” said Clarke. “Yesterday afternoon they stepped up to the plate fantastically well and they fought hard this morning.

“For Sergio and Rafa to get that extra half point at the end from a seeminly impossible position was a huge boost for us.”

On a sun-kissed morning in Minnesota, Thomas Pieters continued to vindicate his selection ahead of both Russell Knox and Luke Donald as the Belgian gelled every bit as well with Rory McIlroy in foursomes as they had when winning 3&2 in Friday’s foursomes.

Up against Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson, the European pair burst out of the blocks, with Pieters showing why captain Clarke talks about him in the same breathe as McIlroy and Tiger Woods in terms of being superstars in the making at an early age.

After Mickelson had raised the first huge roar of the morning by rolling in a birdie putt across the green at the first, Pieters coolly followed him in from around 12 feet, putting a finger to his lips in a “shhhh” gesture as he walked towards the next tee.

Sparked by that and McIlroy then winning the second with a birdie from 15 feet, the Europeans quickly raced into a three-hole lead, which they retained thanks to Pieters holing a testing par putt at the seventh.

Before the tall 24-year-old took that stroke, there was a loud “boo” from one fan in the crowd, prompting McIlroy to scream out in celebration as his partner’s putt dropped before staring down the crowd as he left the green.

Helped by a Mickelson birdie at the 10th, the home pairing pulled the match back to one down with five to play before Mickelson left a birdie putt woefully short at the par-4 14th and Fowler was unable to rescue the situation.

With Celtic’s main shareholder, Dermont Desmond, among those watching this tussle, Pieters then read a 15-foot putt across a slope to perfection at the 15th before the same player showed real guts to go for the green with Europe’s second at the long 16th and safely found the putting surface to effectively close out the match.

For McIlroy, it was his first success over Mickelson in four Ryder Cup encounters, making it a sweet success. “When I saw the draw last night, I was like, ‘yes, I get to have a go at him again’,” admitted the Northern Irishman.

“My Ryder Cup record against him isn’t what I would like it to be. So, personally, I may have wanted it a little bit more for that reason. But going out first we wanted to start the session off in the right vein by putting a point on the board for Team Europe.”

Pieters was delighted to have chipped in with his second point of the contest, especially after suffering a heavy defeat in the company of Lee Westwood in the opening foursomes, though, in fairness to him, the Englishman took full responsibility for that after playing badly.

“We both hit good shots,” said Pieters. “If I hit a bad one, he [McIlroy] comes back and has a brilliant one. It’s been like that for the last two days and it’s working nicely.”

The second match of the morning fell to the Americans as Brandt Snedeker and Brooks Koepka were never behind in beating Henrik Stenson and debutant Matt Fitzpatrick 3&2 before the all-English pairing of Justin Rose and Chris Wood dug deep to eek out another point for Europe.

Wood, with Scot Mark Crane on his bag, holed birdie putts at both the seventh and 10th before holding his nerve to coax one up to gimme distance at the last to seal victory.

“I’m so pleased to get a point on the board in my first stint in the Ryder Cup and Rosey was the perfect partner for me,” admitted Wood of having the Olympic champion at his side.

The last of the four matches seemed certain to go Team USA’s way as Reed and Spieth holed everything they looked at on and even around the greens to build that four-hole advantage over Garcia and Cabrera-Bello.

However, the “Spanish Armada” refused to throw in the towel and, indeed, it required Reed to hole a testing six-foot par putt at the 18th to secure a half in the end.

Responding to flak being aimed at him in a way he’s done so often over the years, Garcia nervelessly holed a crucial birdie putt at the 16th, where Speith foolishly went for the green with the American team’s approach and put in the hazard.

Cabrera Bello then rolled in a birdie putt from close to the fringe at the par-3 17th as Europe secured a result that felt like a win even though it wasn’t one.

“It’s the Ryder Cup, it’s as simple as that,” said Garcia. “They had an amazing start, but we just kept telling each other, ‘keep at it and keep putting pressure on and hopefully at some point they will slow down a little bit. We managed to do that, so we are very happy.”

After taking his Ryder Cup record to two wins out of two, Cabrera Bello admitted: “I’ve really been loving the experience.

“Normally I get chicken-skin on the last few holes if I’m in contention. Here I get it pretty much on every walk from green to the tee on every hole on every putt, and it’s extremely exciting.”