Rory McIlroy brushed off foul-mouthed attacks by rowdy US fans to keep Europe’s Ryder Cup hopes barely alive with another rip-roaring performance at Hazeltine National.
The world No 3 formed a dream team with Belgian bomber Thomas Pieters crushed Brooks Koepka and US Open champion Dustin Johnson in the afternoon fourballs by 3 and 1 to win their third match from three outings.
The win was a rare bright spot for Darren Clarke’s charges as the USA won the session 3-1 take a 9.5-6.5 lead into today’s 12 singles as the big six of Lee Westwood and Danny Willett, Martin Kaymer and Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson all lost.
It looked as though Westwood would be a hero for Europe and snatch a half with a two footer for birdie at the 18th but he barely grazed the hole and the Americans took a vital point.
As the dust settled, it became clearer that McIlroy is Europe's strong man and he appeared to get more fired up the more he was heckled, having a fan ejected by marshals when he was told to “suck a dick” as he walked to the eighth tee.
Daring US fans to keep it up today, McIlroy said: “It’s a tough environment for us to come and play in. We expect that. It's same for the US guys when they come to play in Europe.
“You have to keep your concentration out there. It's been a long day and sometimes emotions run high.
“Again, we're just glad to get it done and move on, help Europe get another point on the board.”
Asked if the abuse drove him on, McIlroy added: “It fuelled me a lot. The more they shouted, the better we played. I hope they shout at us all day tomorrow.”
Pieters added: “The heckling, it just pumps us up. So hopefully the same for tomorrow.”
It sounded good at the time but McIlroy and Pieters soon realised that they were the only European winners on a very good afternoon for Davis Love.
Europe's stellar pairing have been surpber all week — they’ve never trailed in 49 holes, won 21 of them and only lost 11. And yet they must win their singles at No 1 and No 3 versus Patrick Reed and JB Holmes respectively if Europe are to have any chance of stopping the USA getting early momentum in their quest for the five points they need to win back the trophy.
After crushing Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler 4 and 2 in the foursomes there was to be no let up on the fourballs in the afternoon as the put big hitters Johnson and Koepka to the sword.
“They played really good,” Koepka said. "Hats off to them. They were impressive to watch. Both of them were in it every hole. They both had looks every hole and that’s what you've got to do."
The Americans are formidable opposition but McIlroy and Pieters were off the mark early, racing into a two up lead after five holes.
The sixth was halved in birdie fours before McIlroy made up for a clumsy three-putt by Pieters at the seventh by slotting a 30 footer for birdie that forced Koepka to follow him in from 10 feet just to remain two down.
When Johnson and Koepka both three-putted the par-three eighth for bogeys to go three down, the Americans left themselves with a huge task and McIlroy added to their pain by hitting his approach inside four feet at the ninth before tapping in to put them four up.
McIlroy then matched a birdie by Koepka at the 10th, rattling in 12 footer to put the European pair eight under for the first 10 holes.
The Americans won the 11th and 12th, lost the 13th and 14th, then won the 15th when McIlroy drove out of bounds and the 16th when the Co Down man got a “mud ball” and hooked his approach into the lake.
But it all ended with a Pieters birdie at the 17th that gave the Europeans a betterball of 11 under par.
Skipper Clarke took a huge gamble putting McIlroy and Pieters out in foursomes. But he also took a chance by leaving out the in-form Rafa Cabrera Bello and Chris Wood and bringing back Danny Willett to partner Lee Westwood while recalling Martin Kaymer to partner Garcia,
Willett and Westwood were left to take on Ryan Moore and Holmes but after the fourball shared eight birdies in first six holes, the English duo edged ahead when Westwood made his third successive birdie at the seventh.
With Moore struggling, Holmes made three back nine birdies to take them to the 17th all square but while he found water with his tee shot there, Moore made par and both Willet and Westwood bogeyed to allow the Americans to go one up in the match for the first time.
Westwood stitched his approach to the last but incredibly missed his birdie putt to remain winless in the week when he was hoping to surpass Nick Faldo as Europe’s leading points winner.
Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar proved too strong for the struggling Martin Kaymer and Spaniard Sergio Garcia and were nine under to the European’s seven under as they claimed the point by 2 and 1.
The anchor match on Saturday is regarded a key to momentum and the USA had a stellar pairing in Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, who bounced back from their halved foursomes with Garcia and Cabrera Bello by beating Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson 2 and 1
Rose and Stenson were three under and one up through three holes but Reed was sensational for the Americans, playing the four-hole stretch from the fifth to the eighth in five under.
Not only did he birdie at the fifth, seventh and eighth but he holed out from the fairway for an eagle three at the sixth.
While Stenson birdied the 12th and Rose the 13th to cut the gap to one hole, Reed birdied the 14th to restore the American’s two up lead.
Even Stenson's late chip in for eagle at the 16th proved in vain and as the singles order emerged it became clear that Europe need 12 McIlroy's on Sunday when they have only three or four.
The Americans, and Love, needed no rreminding of Medinah.
"Me bringing it up? In the team room?" Love asked. "No, we keep looking forward. But trust me, the six captains, we talk about it, because we've learned — we've brought up every year from, well, I don't know how far back our stats go on The European Team.
"But yeah, that's our job, is to look at the stats and figure out a lineup, think about — we got slowed down on the pairings tonight because we got guys that played on a lot of teams sitting there going, remember when we did this and remember when we did that.
"Sure, 2008, 2012, 2012, 2014 were all talked about, but that's our job. That's the reason why we're the captains. That's the reason why those guys said, I will come and help, is because they have experience. So yeah, we talked about it, and we threw a lineup out there based on that.
"I'll never forget the conversation Darren Clarke and I had Sunday night at Medinah on the back porch of the hotel. He and I will have another conversation about this lineup, you know, no matter what the outcome is.
"We've seen it before, and we use that experience to our advantage, and you know, hopefully every one of those 12 matches will just go play their match and try to win their point, do the best they can for the team."
Clarke arrived with two media helpers and his friend and long-time manager Chubby Chandler in tow and while he tried to sound upbeat, the mood was grim as they trudged away with a collective "onwards" following a brief media conference with only a handful of press given the lateness of the hour
Clarke said: "In Medinah, obviously, they were four points behind, one point worse than what we are now.
"But teams have come back from that deficit, not just there, but elsewhere. So it's still game on. As I've just said there, there's 12 points to play for tomorrow. We are currently three points behind. But I've got a team that, yes, they were disappointed whenever we came off the golf course, as naturally they should be, I would expect them to be that way.
"But we sat and had a team meeting afterwards with the players and the caddies, and some of the players spoke up, and we had a really good, strong meeting afterwards. And those guys fully believe that they have the talent and the desire to put a result in tomorrow."
Asked about Westwood, he said: "Well, Lee played fantastic all day. I don't know how much of the golf that you watched; he played fantastic all day. The shot that he hit out of the bunker, to hit it to where he did -- to hit the shot that he did, to get it that close, and indeed the one that Danny hit out of the bunker to get it up there. You know, he gave himself every opportunity.
"It was a downhill, right-to-left putt that he would probably make nine times out of ten, but you add Ryder Cup pressure and he missed it. It happens in professional golf. But his golf all day was fantastic. He's disappointed, but he's ready to get out there and play again tomorrow."
Asked how Westwood was psychologically, he said: "Lee's fine. He's a veteran and he's done this many, many times. He's disappointed, and he's disappointed more for the team than himself when he came off the golf course. He's now back focused on what he needs to do tomorrow."
Singles - USA v Europe
- Patrick REED v Rory MCILROY 11:04 AM
- Jordan SPIETH v Henrik STENSON 11:15 AM
- J. B. HOLMES v Thomas PIETERS
- Rickie FOWLER v Justin ROSE
- Jimmy WALKER v Rafa CABRERA BELLO
- Phil MICKELSON v Sergio GARCIA
- Ryan MOORE v Lee WESTWOOD
- Brandt SNEDEKER v Andy SULLIVAN
- Dustin JOHNSON v Chris WOOD
- Brooks KOEPKA v Danny WILLETT
- Matt KUCHAR v Martin KAYMER
- Zach JOHNSON v Matt FITZPATRICK