As the European team rallied back after a disastrous early start at the Ryder Cup, what can Darren Clarke take from the opening day’s play?
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Considering the 2016 Ryder Cup couldn’t have started any worse for the European team, there’s a real chance that Darren Clarke’s team returned to their locker rooms at the end of the day in a buoyant mood in spite of facing up to a 5-3 deficit.
While Ian Poulter’s late charge is pinpointed as the moment the Europeans managed to turn things around at Medinah in 2012, Rory McIlroy’s closing eagle on the 16th could prove to have a similar effect for this year’s team.
Having dealt with the humiliation of getting swept in the morning foursomes, Europe showed the kind of resilience and determination that has seen them dominate Ryder Cups in recent years to bounce back and win the afternoon fourballs by 3-1.
Heading into Saturday, Darren Clarke and his assistant captains are left with plenty to ponder. Some of Europe’s marquee names are playing well, but will they need a chance to rest?
With disappointing performances from stalwarts of previous Ryder Cup successes, will Clarke feel free to put more faith in his rookies on Saturday or have they not done enough yet to fully earn his trust?
To attempt to answer those key questions and more, let’s look at five key takeaways from Friday’s play from a European perspective.
In spite of a loss to the excellent play of Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed in the morning foursomes, you’d be hard pushed to find too many players playing better at Hazeltine than the Open Champion, Henrik Stenson.
Before turning on the fireworks of his own later in the day with seven birdies in the fourballs, Stenson had a very solid ball-striking performance in the morning. For as good as America’s marquee duo were in claiming a 3 & 2 win, Stenson’s iron play provided a number of opportunities that his playing partner Justin Rose failed to capitalize on.
Rose rallied and played better in the afternoon, but it really the Stenson show. Having come into the event with concerns over a knee injury that forced his early elimination in the FedEx Cup, Stenson will have been pleased to get a day’s good play under his belt. When the Swede looked to cut loose with his driver, there were occasionally signs of his knee troubling him. If Stenson can rely on his trusty three-wood for the next two days, Europe will have a great chance to win.
Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
The Spanish Armada
Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sergio Garcia have all proven to be Spanish stalwarts of Ryder Cup teams down the years, and with an impressive fourballs debut, there’s every reason to believe Rafa Cabrera Bello could join them.
It was something of a surprise to see Garcia paired alongside Kaymer in the morning session, and when that experiment didn’t quite work out, Captain Clarke effectively righted that wrong in bringing Cabrera Bello in to make an all-Spanish duo. All of a sudden, Garcia looked more at home, not only for having a compatriot by his side, but also a player who was playing excellent golf.
Cabrera Bello’s outstandingly consistent play across the globe this year indicated he should be up to the Ryder Cup challenge, and an opening birdie confirmed that to be true. Cabrera Bello carried himself like a veteran throughout the round, with all areas of his game looking in impressive shape. Clarke would be brave to sit either of these men on Saturday.
Facing Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler in the morning, then Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar later in the afternoon, Rory McIlroy was always going to need to have all aspects of his game firing if he was to have any real success on Friday. In spite of his two recent wins, the Northern Irishman’s recent putting woes still seemed like a potential thorn in his side.
As it turned out, although McIlroy’s iron play wasn’t always as dialed in on Friday as it usually is, the short putts that plagued him for significant parts of this season caused no real problems in either session of play.
McIlroy started the morning foursomes by holing out in convincing fashion on multiple holes early on and that set the tone for the day to come. McIlroy certainly isn’t the consistent putter that many of his American rivals can claim to be, but with confidence in the flat stick, he could be a terror for his US opponents over the next two days.
Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Rookies Are Up To The Challenge
For as much had been made about Europe’s six rookies heading into this week’s event, the first-timers acquitted themselves quite well on Friday, even if their senior partners didn’t always make it easy to recognize that.
Belgian phenomenon Thomas Pieters was the only rookie to play in both sessions. Although he received little help from an out of sorts Lee Westwood, the 24-year-old showed flashes of the good play that would allow his birdies to secure four winning holes alongside Rory McIlroy in the afternoon.
As I alluded to earlier, Cabrera Bello’s play hardly resembled that of a rookie, as he excelled alongside Garcia. Outside of hitting a ball in the water in the closing embers of the match, Andy Sullivan demonstrated an impressive level of comfort in the morning session, holing a host of pivotal putts.
Danny Willett didn’t have the afternoon he was looking for after a controversial few days, but in truth he got very little help from Martin Kaymer in the fourballs, as the Englishman’s score was the one that counted for the pair for their first nine holes. From what he saw on Friday, Clarke should be willing to opt for Matt Fitzpatrick and Chris Wood over some of his struggling veterans on Saturday.
Of course, a number of Darren Clarke’s veteran figures performed well on Friday, think Stenson, Garcia and McIlroy, but some of those more experienced players who he was relying on to help his rookies out simply didn’t look up to the task.
Lee Westwood has struggled this season as his personal circumstances have led him to play a limited schedule around the world, but as Darren Clarke explained when he selected the Englishman as his pick, the hope would be that his value would come from his experience. Unfortunately, whether it was opening with a missed three-footer or dumping his ball in the water just a few holes later, Westwood did nothing to make Pieters’ first taste of Ryder Cup play easier.
Having shown some steady ball-striking in the morning alongside Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer was asked to accompany Danny Willett later in the day. The German struggled to make fairways with a number of big wides, and as the only player on the either team to have lost two matches so far, he’ll really have to find something different the next time he’s out on course.
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