Rory McIlroy was last night paired against Phil Mickelson in a dream match-up on the first morning of the 40th Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
The random matching of players to contest the opening fourballs has satisfied the appetite within golf to see two of the game’s greats go head-to-head amid the backdrop of one of the biggest storylines in the build-up to an event that takes on greater importance with each passing renewal.
Mickelson joked on Wednesday about McIlroy’s court case against the Northern Irishman’s former management company Horizon, which has seen team-mate Graeme McDowell dragged into the dispute as he is still represented by them.
“Not only are we able to play together, we also don’t litigate against each other and that’s a real plus,” said five-time major winner Mickelson.
McIlroy and the rest of the European team laughed off the remarks, with the world No 1 revealing he had landed a few verbal “jabs” on the left-hander at the gala dinner in Glasgow.
But it has added extra spice to an event that needs no extra hyping.
It led to US captain Tom Watson describing the session’s final fourball between McIlroy and Sergio Garcia and Mickelson and Keegan Bradley as the “main event in the first round” and a “barnburner”.
“That last contest is the striking contest,” added Watson, who was also captain in the 1993 when the United States last won on European soil at The Belfry.
“We are looking forward to that.”
Mickelson and Bradley won all three of their matches together two years ago and Watson put another successful Medinah pairing, Webb Simpson and Masters champion Bubba Watson, out first against Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson.
Thomas Bjorn and Martin Kaymer take on Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler in the second match, with local favourite Stephen Gallacher and Ryder Cup talisman Ian Poulter out third against young rookie pairing Jordan Spieth, 21, and Patrick Reed, 24.
Watson left out Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson but said all four would play in the afternoon foursomes, while European captain Paul McGinley said it was his intention to play veteran Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell, Victor Dubuisson and Jamie Donaldson, although it was not “written in stone.”
“I’ve gone with one rookie in the morning and Tom has gone with three. That might be a genius move by Tom, it might not,” said McGinley.
“My ideas might backfire, as well, but that’s what you do as captain, make your decisions, set out your stall, watch what happens and you adapt to what happens.
“There will be decisions I’ll get wrong as captain, I’m prepared for that. But I’d like to think that I’ll be able to adjust things and go forward.”
All four of Europe’s pairs have not played together in the Ryder Cup before, with McGinley revealing that McIlroy and Garcia had been asking for months to be paired up.
“These guys all know each other very well and you move forward,” said McGinley, who had spoken all week about not changing the successful European template. “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.
“Ian Poulter is a very experienced player now. There’s going to be a big atmosphere in that group, we’ll need a guy with a big attitude for that and I think Ian Poulter fits that bill.
“Justin and Henrik spent a lot of time together at Lake Nona (in Orlando) over the years, know each other very, very well, and you have Sergio and Rory who have formed a real bond and friendship and respect for each other’s games during the summer period.
“Things evolve and move. The template doesn’t mean pairings have to be the exact same pairings.”
McIlroy and Garcia did battle for the Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational – both won by McIlroy – in the space of three weeks, but McGinley added of their pairing: “I probably wouldn’t have seen it to be honest. They kind of raised it to me around BMW time in Wentworth (in May) and I said, okay, let me think about that.
“I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to it and it’s only as they started talking to me more and more around Firestone that my position became a little bit clearer.”
US Open champion Kaymer hailed Bjorn as his “mentor” after the Dane’s influence on him while vice-captain in 2010 and 2012, the latter contest ending in Kaymer holing the putt to ensure Europe would retain the trophy.
“Actually before we even qualified, we said we have to make the team so we can play with each other,” said Kaymer.
Unsurprisingly, Poulter – who has won 12 of his 15 Ryder Cup matches – said he was “absolutely buzzing” at the prospect of playing alongside fellow wild card Gallacher. But Watson said he had no fears that Spieth and Reed would be intimidated, adding: “These kids are tough kids and they are not dumb. If they beat him, it’s more power to them.
“Same thing about the last group there.
“If Phil and Keegan win that match, just think of the boost it will give our team.”
Mischievious Mickelson: Page 19