Europe claimed a 5-3 lead after the first two sessions of the 40th Ryder Cup, despite their star trio of Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter contributing just half a point.
But what a sensational half point it was, and what it could mean to the final outcome given the way it was achieved on a rollercoaster day at Gleneagles.
Two down to Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker with two holes to play, McIlroy and Garcia – ranked one and three in the world respectively – were staring at their second defeat of the day, with European talisman Ian Poulter having earlier suffered his heaviest Ryder Cup loss ever.
However, four-time major winner McIlroy rose to the occasion with a birdie from 35 feet across the 17th green to keep the match alive, before Garcia smashed a stunning five wood from the rough 229 yards onto the 18th green to set up another and snatch the most unlikely of half points.
“That was probably as good as a win, to come back from where they were,” said European captain Paul McGinley, who had kept faith with his big names after they lost two of the last three holes in a fourball defeat to Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley earlier on.
“We needed it, we really did,” a relieved McIlroy said. “We were making life difficult for ourselves out there. I don’t think either of us was playing from the fairways very much.
“We just wanted to ask them a question and get them going and we were able to do that. And Sergio had the shot of the day at the last. It was big, and at least we got something out of the day. We played two really tough matches and we have half a point to show for it.”
Garcia, who was later forced to respond to being called “useless” in Europe’s defeat at Valhalla in 2008 by his then-captain Nick Faldo, added: “We knew we weren’t playing good. We fought as hard as we could. Half a point is just huge.”
By the time of the dramatic finish, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson had already secured their second win of the day, beating Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson 2&1 to follow a commanding fourball win over an out-of-sorts Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, who failed to register a single birdie.
Lee Westwood and Jamie Donaldson had been left out of the opening session but were sent out in the first foursomes match and responded with a two-hole win over Jim Furyk and Matt Kuchar, whose duffed pitch on the 18th sealed the result.
And with Graeme McDowell and rookie Victor Dubuisson then seeing off the previously unbeaten Mickelson and Bradley 3&2, Europe had the early edge in their quest for an eighth win in the last 10 contests.
It made for a stark contrast to the mood after the opening session was lost 2.5 to 1.5, Rose and Stenson’s 5&4 win cancelled out by victory by the same margin for rookie duo Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed over Poulter and home favourite Stephen Gallacher.
The writing was on the wall the moment Poulter missed from three feet for par on the first and Gallacher’s birdie on the second was the only one they managed between them all day.
‘’The first tee was magic, just exactly what I was expecting,’’ said Gallacher, who lives just 35 miles from the course. ‘’The fans have been great all the way around. Just a shame we never really got the birdies today to compete with them.’’
Poulter, who had won his previous seven matches and 11 of his last 12, added: ‘’Clearly in this format you have to hole putts. We didn’t do that. They did and obviously it’s a point on the board for them.’’
Thomas Bjorn and US Open champion Martin Kaymer looked set to claim a win as they reached the 16th tee two up on Walker and Fowler, only for an inspired Walker to chip in on the 16th – he had already holed a bunker shot on the ninth for an eagle – and hole from six feet on the last to snatch a half.
And the situation was then almost replicated in the final match, Bradley holing from 10 feet for an eagle on the 16th and Mickelson making a birdie on the last to claim victory over McIlroy and Garcia. Spieth and Reed were surprisingly left out of the foursomes and US captain Tom Watson said: “They were very upset with me for not playing them. I said, I know you’re going to be mad at me, but you’ll be playing tomorrow for sure.’’
He was as good as his word and that meant facing Bjorn and Kaymer in the third match, with Rose and Stenson out first against Watson and Kuchar followed by Donaldson and Westwood against Furyk and Mahan.
Despite his final-hole heroics, Garcia was left out as McGinley put Poulter alongside McIlroy, no doubt hoping for a repeat of their memorable Medinah win over Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson, when Poulter birdied the final five holes.