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Sunday 4 December 2016

A sluggish start for Darren's strugglers

Rory McIlroy plays an iron shot during yesterday’s play
Rory McIlroy plays an iron shot during yesterday’s play

It was the worst start captain Darren Clarke could have imagined - and Europe will have to create history to retain the Ryder Cup after being whitewashed by the United States in the opening session at Hazeltine yesterday morning.

They knew they would have a fired-up Team USA to contend with after their recent thumpings in the event - and had to hope they could claw back some of the damage in the afternoon's fourball matches. It wasn't the script they had hoped for.

In a brutal morning for Clarke's side, Olympic gold medallist Justin Rose and Open champion Henrik Stenson surrendered their unbeaten record to Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, before Lee Westwood and rookie Thomas Pieters were thrashed by Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar.

Jimmy Walker and Zach Johnson then won five holes in succession to beat Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer 4&2, before Europe's misery was completed as Rory McIlroy and Andy Sullivan lost on the 18th to Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler.

The US have never lost a Ryder Cup on home soil after winning the opening session, and Clarke had to hope his side would be strong enough to get a point or two on the board in the later matches. He kept faith with Rose and Stenson in the first match as they took on Spieth and Reed again, with Rafa Cabrera Bello drafted in to partner fellow Spaniard Garcia against Ryan Moore and JB Holmes.

Masters champion Danny Willett partnered Kaymer against Brandt Snedeker and Brooks Koepka, with the final match seeing McIlroy alongside Pieters against US Open champion Johnson and Kuchar.

Awesome

When Reed sealed his match on the 16th with a birdie in front of a raucous crowd in the morning foursomes, he said: "I live for those kind of moments, having the whole crowd behind me gets me going. It was awesome."

Spieth added: "We knew months ago Rose and Stenson would be thrown out first and we told the captain we'd love to hit the first shots. We got off to a hot start. We both believe in each other's games."

Westwood and Pieters were in trouble from the moment they bogeyed the first two holes and were five down after eight, their only win of the day coming with a par on the ninth after the Americans three-putted from long range.

Ryder Cup veteran Westwood shouldered full responsibility for the dreadful 5&4 loss to Johnson and Kuchar.

The Englishman, playing in his 10th successive event, was paired with rookie Pieters and was charged with helping the 24-year-old Belgian get around in his first outing.

However, despite a comforting arm around his partner's back on the first tee there was little other support from the 43-year-old, who was one of Clarke's picks in order to get some experience into a team which features six debutants.

"I will take responsibility. I played poorly and Thomas played well. He made some putts when we needed to," said Westwood, who is two points short of Nick Faldo's all-time Ryder Cup record haul of 25 points.

"You try to put a bit of pressure on, you don't want to be giving holes away.

"I hit a couple of wild drives early on (he drove into a bunker at the first and water at the seventh) and you can't afford to do that. It's a tough game to play and you want to get momentum."

For his part, Garcia was missing some crucial putts, and said: "When you have chances, you've got to take them. If you go two up maybe it's different, but unfortunately we didn't - and they did."

The experienced Spaniard felt the home support was certainly having an impact, explaining: "It is a massive crowd. They are very excited - and they should be - but it is our job to hopefully quieten them down a little bit."

Veteran Mickelson was delighted with the competitive spirit the US side was showing, saying: "It was a lot of heart ... It was a match where I didn't drive the ball well. It was a match where I felt more pressure in than in any Ryder Cup, because of the last two years and the build-up."

USA captain Davis Love III was a happy man heading into the afternoon fourballs, and said: "It's obviously a dream start for us. Everybody was nervous… you could see that on the first tee box, but it worked out well.

Strong

"It's always a challenge for the captain (picking the pairings), but everyone's supporting each other here."

However, Clarke was left to ponder how he could get the best out of his stars over the weekend, saying: "They didn't fire on all cylinders. They have been playing nicely in practice. It's just one of those things. We thought we were looking strong, but they played better than we did. Four-nil (in the morning) was probably a fair result.

"There are so many points to play for. Obviously it's not ideal, but we have come back in the past."

It needed a miracle in Medinah - and if Team USA play with similar verve throughout the weekend, it may need something similar here.

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