US Open Champion Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy went out in the first European grouping. (Getty Images)
Practice groupings give first clues
After weeks of hype, anticipation, excitement and suspense, the two Team Captains showed their hands for the first time as they sent their groupings on their way on the opening practice day of The 2010 Ryder Cup.
By Paul Symes, europeantour.com
On a cool but dry morning, the calm was broken by a smattering of applause as the Northern Irish duo of Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy and the Molinari brothers from Italy stepped onto the 11th tee.
With drives as crisp as the fresh morning air in the Usk Valley, the quartet were on their way, followed by several hundred hardy souls behind the ropes.
Next up came the new slim-line Lee Westwood, whose stringent fitness regime in the wake of his recent calf injury has seen him shed some pounds. The Englishman, whose potential partnership with German wunderkind Martin Kaymer could prove explosive, showed that he had lost none of his power during an enforced absence from the fairways with a meaty drive which split the fairway in two.
Enigmatic Spaniard Miguel Angel Jiménez appeared to be paired with Ryder Cup rookie Peter Hanson of Sweden, and while be may lack the length of some of his younger team-mates, he more than makes up for it with guile and grace around the greens.
Having come up short of the 11th green in two, Jiménez delicately removed the customary cigar from his mouth before delicately pitching his ball to six feet.
Ian Poulter, playing in the next group with Padraig Harrington, also showed his touch with a chip which came to rest a mere matter of inches from the hole. The watching Mark Roe, an analyst on Sky Sports and a short game coach to a number of European Tour players, nodded his approval.
Harrington and Ross Fisher, grouped with another Englishman in Luke Donald, both reached the green in two, but after Fisher’s putt had slid agonisingly past the hole it was left to the three-time Major winner to register Europe’s first eagle of the day, to rapturous applause from the ever-growing galleries.
“Same again on Friday please Padraig,” said Captain Colin Montgomerie, fitted with a radio earpiece to enable him to communicate with his four Vice Captains more easily.
Poulter was less impressed, however. “Don’t clap that,” he said. “That putt’s just cost us all £50!”
“We’re here to make money, not friends,” came the quick-witted reply.
The groups were followed onto the 11th green by Mike Stewart, one of the Tour’s large contingent of referees, who took the stimp reading – which in layman’s terms means a measurement of how fast the greens on the Twenty Ten course are running.
The current speed is around 11, which probably means little to most people – but suffice to say it’s fairly fast, if perhaps not quite as quick as the Americans are used to on the US PGA Tour.
Another of the referees’ roles is to set the pin positions on the greens, and the flag on the 14th hole was a bit of a brute, tucked away on the left hand side of the green – which is guarded by a lake – leaving little room for error.
This intimidating hole could prove pivotal and provide plenty of drama over the coming days, with an even larger lake running along the length of the fairway on the right.
Edoardo Molinari’s first approach shot met a watery grave and his second found the greenside bunker, but younger brother Francesco – who was playing under the watchful eye of swing coach and ‘Golf Night’ contributor Denis Pugh – fared rather better, following McDowell in for birdie.
Watching from the greenside was the Team’s ‘13th man’ Rhys Davies, who knows all about McIlroy’s game having played alongside the Ulsterman in the 2007 Walker Cup.
Vice Captain Darren Clarke was overseeing proceedings and the fifth Irishman in the group was Colin Byrne, who since switching bags from Sweden’s Alex Noren to the elder Molinari has done rather well for himself – to say the very least.
Playing in the group behind, Fisher showed the Americans don’t own the monopoly on long-hitting with an enormous drive.
But it was Kaymer who stole the show, stiffing his approach to two feet for a gimme birdie. For those who have been fortunate enough to follow his career closely to date, it would come as no surprise to see the quietly-spoken man from Dusseldorf make a very big noise on his Ryder Cup debut.
The spectators themselves did their best to generate some noise, cheering and applauding the players onto and off the tees and greens.
Montgomerie, whose attention to detail has seen him order the Welsh flag to be embossed onto the base of the European Team members’ bags, has claimed that the fans have an important role to play in assisting Europe’s attempts to reclaim the golden chalice.
The Welsh public has answered the rallying call in impressive fashion, with 30,000 fans expected to flood through the gates on the first two practice days, 36,000 on Thursday when the opening ceremony marks the official start, and 45,000 on the three match days.
So the host nation has certainly embraced The Ryder Cup – and Montgomerie will be hoping to embrace the trophy itself come Sunday night.