GLENEAGLES, United Kingdom: Top-ranked Rory McIlroy partners Sergio Garcia for the first time Friday against unbeaten US duo Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley in a critical opening fourball showdown at the Ryder Cup.
The 40th edition of the US-Europe biennial golf rivalry tees off at Gleneagles with McIlroy, coming off back-to-back major wins at the British Open and PGA Championship, facing five-time major winner Mickelson, who needled McIlroy over a lawsuit against his former management firm earlier this week.
“It’s going to be a difficult match against what we perceive as the strongest team Europe has,” Mickelson said. “I know what a great player Rory McIlroy is and I’ve played with Sergio for a number of years and know what a great player he is. We have our work cut out for us, but we’re on top of our games as well.”
Mickelson and Bradley went 3-0 in a 2012 debut at Medinah while holders Europe will open with four first-ever pairings.
“They are a very strong pairing, never been beaten before together, and we’re looking to hand them their first defeat,” McIlroy said.
“This will be a fantastic partnership,” McIlroy said. “Sergio is one of my closest friends on tour and we always got along well. It was only a matter of time before we got together in Ryder Cup. It’s an exciting match.”
US captain Tom Watson said the feature attraction could be critical for early momentum as Europe seeks a seventh victory in eight tries.
“The last contest, that’s the striking contest,” Watson said. “It’s kind of the main event in the first round.”
Garcia agreed, saying, “To take a point away from there, I think, would be very important.”
England’s Justin Rose and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson face two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson and 2012 US Open winner Webb Simpson in the opener, the Americans having gone 2-1 at Medinah.
Reigning US Open champion Martin Kaymer of Germany and Thomas Bjorn face Rickie Fowler and Cup newcomer Jimmy Walker while US rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed meet 2012 Europe Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter and host-nation hero Stephen Gallacher.
Poulter, whose five birdies in a row to win a Saturday fourball match sparked the victory fightback at Medinah, joined McIlroy as top US targets and he has no doubt the US newcomers are capable of delivering an upset.
“We all know exactly who they are — great players, both of them pretty accomplished early on in their careers,” Poulter said. “We need to play smart. We need to play some great golf.”
Spieth was a Masters runner-up and Reed won three times in seven months, but Poulter will have Scotsman Gallacher at his side.
“Absolutely buzzing, playing with Stevie G, home course in Scotland, first Ryder Cup. It’s going to be amazing with the crowd,” Poulter said. “That’s the energy you need in the Ryder Cup. You need to feed from them. You need to enjoy it and embrace it and play with passion.”
Competition will continue with four afternoon foursomes matches Friday, four more fourball and foursomes matches each on Saturday and 12 concluding singles matches Sunday.
Europe need 14 points to retain the Cup while Americans need 14 1/2 to reclaim the trophy.
European captain Paul McGinley spoke of following a template from past wins then shook up past duos.
“Template doesn’t necessarily mean the same,” McGinley said. “These guys all know each other very well. You move forward two years down the road, a different view and take on things, and games have evolved in slightly different ways and guys become more experienced. Things evolve.”
Bubba Watson and Webb went 2-1 at Medinah, splitting twice with Rose.
“I’m one for one playing those guys,” Rose said. “Poults and I beat them in foursomes and I lost to them in four-ball at Medinah. A dangerous partnership and certainly no underestimating them.
omes down to game at the end of the day and obviously Henrik is a wonderful player and we should gel well together.”
Windy, cool and overcast conditions are forecast, testing Watson’s ability to hit his trademark long drives and avoid dense rough.
“It’s going to be a tough day with the weather,” Simpson said. “If we keep two balls in play, that will be big.”
But Watson saw the US lose in 2012 after seizing a 10-4 lead in pairs play.
“We saw in 2012 that obviously a hot start is not the key. It’s about finishing,” he said. “A hot start is better than not having a hot start. It’s better for morale and better for everything like that.”