Ryder Cup 2012: José María Olazábal faces battle to get Europe on track

Medinah on Friday offered a nod to the brilliant fluctuations that make the Ryder Cup unique and, for that matter, so compelling.

At two separate stages in the morning foursomes, Europe held a lead in every match on the course. Not only did the United States recover from those early setbacks, they offered a stirring fourballs display that left the European team desperately trying to keep afloat.

José María Olazábal has sufficient experience in this competition not to panic at a two-point deficit, or to regard it as anything close to insurmountable. A fearsome will to win is one of the Spaniard's most useful traits.

Nonetheless, Europe's captain faces a challenge at least equal and arguably greater than anything else he has met in his career to turn this match around. It is utterly crucial for Olazábal that the United States are not afforded further momentum from the start on Saturday – stemming that flow and quelling the increasingly buoyant home crowd really would represent an epic task.

The USA's afternoon tone was set by the extrovert Bubba Watson, who retains cult status among golfing fans on this side of the Atlantic. Watson conducted roaring on the 1st tee and did not bother waiting for it to die down before lashing his opening drive. Unfortunately for Europe, that playing to the gallery was backed up with substance; Watson and Webb Simpson were six up on Paul Lawrie and Peter Hanson by the turn and closed out a 5&4 victory. Lawrie had not intended his Ryder Cup return, following a 13-year absence, to open in such an inauspicious way.

Perhaps more notable than that result was the dismissal of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell by Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson. That American duo had swatted the hitherto undefeated Luke Donald and Sergio García aside in the morning, in merely the latest demonstration of what an admirable attitude Bradley has in pressure scenarios. This, after all, is the 26-year-old's Ryder Cup debut.

When asked if he had any energy left, Bradley said: "Oh baby, I wish I could go 36 more." That enthusiasm must be infectious – Mickelson had never before won two Ryder Cup matches in the same day.

Davis Love, the United States captain, can lay claim to have mastered his Friday selections. Leaving Watson and Webb Simpson, both reigning major champions, out of the foursomes setup was regarded by some as controversial. Not only did their afternoon arrival offer fresh impetus to the hosts, those deployed in the morning collected their half of the four available points in combat with a strong European contingent.

Olazábal, it must be remembered, had sent out his most formidable players in the first session with the clear hope of gaining an immediate lead. When that didn't transpire, pressure on the Europeans to keep pace with the United States later in the day was inevitable.

With that in mind, it seemed curious that Olazábal omitted García, Luke Donald and, particularly, Ian Poulter from yesterday afternoon's play. Even more notable is the fact that call appeared to be premeditated, made before cognisance of the foursomes had been taken.

When it became apparent Europe would be involved in a fourball scrap, Poulter's experience and presence would surely have been of advantage to Olazábal. Rule No1 of Ryder Cup captaincy, it is so consistently pointed out, should be flexibility with regard to each draw.

Generally there was wayward golf, exciting golf, and play so wayward it was wonderfully exciting. Any competitor who claims nerves play no part in the Ryder Cup is guilty of lying, anxiety was prevalent from the moment the maiden grouping stepped onto the 1st tee of Medinah Number Three.

McDowell, who hit the opening shot of the event, typified that much. The routinely unflappable Northern Irishman carved his drive left, clipping a tree a mere 100yds from the tee box. To their credit, McDowell and McIlroy recovered from that early aberration to defeat Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker.

Tiger Woods endured a more troublesome day. An indicator of the former world No1's foursome turmoil was that Love could immediately have dropped Woods with little legitimate complaint from the man himself. When Woods' game slides into decline, it doesn't hold firm in any kind of middle ground.

The 36-year-old's wayward driving performance was highlighted by the striking of – in no particular order – a spectator, a television camera, a hospitality tent, a fence, a road and a series of trees. Woods's coach, Sean Foley, won't be adding "Friday at Medinah" to his DVD collection any time soon.

Friday at least ended on a minor high note for Olazábal. Nicolas Colsaerts, the only rookie in the European side, essentially took on Woods and Steve Stricker on his own; the Belgian offered a wonderful display of putting which left him individually with seven birdies and one eagle within 15 holes. Colsaerts, like Bradley, has instantly fallen in love with Ryder Cup golf.

In 1995, Europe launched a recovery from 5-3 down on Friday evening to claim the Ryder Cup in thrilling fashion at Oak Hill. A similar recovery job is required in Chicago. It would be unwise to dismiss Europe's chances of producing that, but Olazabal faces a mighty battle.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ewan Murray at Medinah, for The Guardian on Saturday 29th September 2012 01.12 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Ed McDonald