So, all the huffing and puffing by that much-vaunted task force paid off for Team USA. Set up in the wake of a five-point defeat at Gleneagles two years ago that was immediately followed by a finger of blame being pointed at the captain, Tom Watson, by Phil Mickelson, it came up with a winning formula for the Americans after three losses in a row and six in the previous seven matches.
Leading by three points at the start of the final day, wins from Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, Brandt Snedeker and Brooks Koepka, coupled with a half point from Mickelson as he shared 19 birdies in a sensational tussle, took the home team to the brink of a first victory since 2008 before Ryan Moore, the last man into the team captained by Davis Love III, pictured right, secured the success with a gutsy win against Lee Westwood.
On a third consecutive sunny day in Minnesota – has the 2014 encounter at Gleneagles set a new weather trend for the event? – Hazeltine was turned into a sea of red by the American fans. The atmosphere was also red-hot on the first tee, where, in a first for a match that has been played since 1927, the fans were effectively told to behave in an announcement that followed some of the ugly scenes on Saturday. “Comments should be respectful at all times,” said the official starter while a statement issued around the same time by the PGA of America warned that a “zero tolerance” policy was being implemented. It said fans who were “disruptive in any way, including the use of vulgar or profane language directed at the players”, would be removed from the course.
While the odd “boo” greeted Rory McIlroy’s arrival for his match with Reed – it was a battle between the “Hazeltine Heavyweights” – the mood was jovial as opposing fans traded songs as well as joining together in a chorus of “Arnold Palmer, Arnold Palmer” in memory of “The King” following his passing away a week earlier.
Boy, would Palmer have enjoyed watching what unfolded and he’d certainly have liked a front-row seat for that tussle between McIlroy and Reed, which quickly became something special. No, make that really special. Not that he needed to get in the mood, having easily been the player who’d done the most to fire up the home fans with some scintilating stuff over the previous two days, Reed raised the day’s first big roar by holing a decent par putt at the opening hole for a half. The decibel level was soon through the roof, mainly down to that match.
As they traded blows like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Reed was playing like a man possessed again. McIlroy was just McIlroy. Having eagled the sixth on Saturday afternoon, Reed achived that feat a hole earlier this time after hitting his tee shot at the 322-yard par-4 to eight feet. The American celebrated by taking a bow, mimicking McIlroy from Friday afternoon. McIlroy responded with a “shhh” as the next was halved in birdie-3s.
As for the eighth? Wow. McIlroy rolled in a 50-footer from the front of the green and erupted. Putting a hand up to his ear, he screamed: “I can’t hear you”. The whole world probably heard the roar that Reed created by following him in for a 2 from around 20 feet. An advocate of sportsmanship, Palmer would have loved seeing these two golfing gladiators touch knuckles as they left that green.
Elsewhere, birdies started flying in all over the place. Did we really expect anything else following the quality of golf we’d seen the two previous days? Down early on, Henrik Stenson reeled off three birdies in four holes to gain the upper hand on Jordan Spieth in match No 2. Rafa Cabrera Bello reached the turn three up on Jimmy Walker. Shortly after the last of the 12 matches got underway, there were six blue flags on the board and no sign of a red one. An hour later, that had changed to six red and just two blue.
It was asking too much for McIlroy and Reed to keep shooting the lights out. As that contest became more of a scrap on the back nine, the American edged in front when a par was good enough at the 12th. All of a sudden, McIlroy had lost his spark. It happens, in fairness. Europe couldn’t afford it to happen at this particular juncture. He went two down to a brilliant Reed up-and-down birdie at the 16th.
As Cabrera Bello charged on – the Spaniard almost holed his tee shot at the 13th – fellow rookie Thomas Pieters also put some blue up in those crucial early matches as he recovered from losing the first two holes – what a prospect this young Belgian is – to nudge ahead against J B Holmes. Alas, after all leading early on, Westwood, Andy Sullivan, Chris Wood and Danny Willett had either been hauled back to square or found themselves trailing to Moore, Snedeker, Dustin Johnson and Koepka respectively by the turn.
Up ahead, Reed was clumsy with his chip at the 17th. It was one of the rare times he’d put a foot wrong in three days, though. McIlroy’s hopes of stealing a half point were duly dashed when the American nervelessly holed from six feet – McIlroy was just inside him – at the last for the win.
It came shortly after Stenson had closed out Spieth, who contributed to his downfall by finding water at both the 13th and 16th. Pieters also delivered the point he’d been sent out to try and secure early on. In beating Holmes, he became Europe’s most successful rookie in the event with four points from five games. Like Reed, he was made for a stage like this.
Finishing with three points out of three, Cabrera Bello was another shining light for Europe, with questions sure to be asked about Clarke’s decision to omit him from the Saturday afternoon session that saw the momentum swing back Team USA’s way.
While it had been somewhat overshadowed earlier on, Garcia and Mickelson had a right ding-dong battle. It went right to the wire and ended all square after Mickelson made ten birdies and Garcia nine. In another tight tussle, Rose had held the upper hand on Fowler until the American birdied the 16th. It was another point Europe badly needed but didn’t secure.
In the end, the 4-0 whitewash Europe suffered in Friday’s opening session proved insurmountable. Team USA deserved this long-awaited success. That task force did what it was set up to do.