Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Ryder Cup: McIlroy knocked by Mickelson's mind games?

By Chris Murphy, CNN
updated 12:39 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Phil Mickelson shakes Rory McIlroy's hand after claiming a vital point for Team USA in the final fourball match on Friday.
Phil Mickelson shakes Rory McIlroy's hand after claiming a vital point for Team USA in the final fourball match on Friday.
  • Phil Mickelson draws first blood in battle with world No. 1 Rory McIlroy
  • American seals a victory over the European pairing on the final hole
  • McIlroy and Mickelson verbally joust in build up to Ryder Cup contest at Gleneagles
  • Thousands of spectators drawn to watch climax of compelling fourball battle

Gleneagles, Scotland (CNN) -- "That match is the main event in the first round. You know that and I know that."

Tom Watson is rarely wrong, and those words in his final press briefing on the eve of the 40th Ryder Cup proved the U.S. captain remains a shrewd judge.

He was referring to a clash involving Rory McIlroy, for whom center stage was clear thanks to a stellar season that helped him double his major tally to four, and the enforced absence of Tiger Woods.

But despite cruising into the biennial battle between Europe and the U.S. in supreme form, the world's premier golfer met his match in a wily campaigner who is still in great shape on the course and razor sharp off it.

The victorious European team and captain Paul McGinley after retaining the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. The victorious European team and captain Paul McGinley after retaining the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
Ryder Cup: Europe retains the trophy
Ryder Cup: Europe beats United States at Gleneagles Ryder Cup: Europe beats United States at Gleneagles
Ryder Cup teams prepare for a tough battle
How the Ryder Cup rivalry began at Gleneagles

And after a titanic tussle that went right to the final blow after a full five hours on the course at Gleneagles, it wasn't McIlroy who was smiling.

By describing Phil Mickelson's career as "being in the back nine," the Northern Irishman clearly stirred something in the 44-year-old, who felt the need to respond with a close range jab of his own.

Answering a question about togetherness in the U.S. camp, 'Lefty' referenced an ongoing court battle between McIlroy and his former management company, which counts his Ryder Cup teammate Graeme McDowell as both client and shareholder.

It added an extra layer of spice to their face off in Friday morning's fourballs, the two ably flanked by the other half of their current bromances -- Spain's Sergio Garcia and 2011 U.S. PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley.

As both groups made their way onto the first tee to a cacophony of noise, it was McIlroy and Garcia that drank in the warmth of not just an early Scottish sun, but also a vociferous crowd.

"You've got Big Mac, we've got little Mac," sang a jubilant crowd, gathered in their thousands, in between energetic chants of 'Europe, Europe.' "

McIlroy, playing in only his third Ryder Cup, had spoken of embracing his role as the continent's on-course talisman, reflecting his emerging status in the pantheon of golfing superstars.

His 2014 campaign came to life almost the minute he'd announced his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki was off. That same May week, he won the European Tour's flagship event — the BMW PGA Championship.

That kickstarted a resurgence in form as he collected the Open Championship crown — his first — the Bridgestone Invitational, then the final major of the year, the U.S. PGA Championship.

After whacking his tee shot over 300 yards down the first fairway, the ball almost carrying even further by the roars that chased it, McIlroy matched Bradley's birdie to get the match off to a rapid start.

And when Garcia holed an unlikely bunker shot on the fourth hole to help Europe take a one-shot lead, the pair that had lobbied European captain Paul McGinley so hard to be matched together offered the enormous galleries an inevitable fist pump.

Read more: More than just a game

McIlroy, paired with McDowell in all but one of his group matches in the previous two Ryder Cup contests, had grown even closer to Garcia as the two went head-to-head for major honors during the PGA Tour's summer months.

They were clearly at ease as they traversed the swales and hollows of the centenary course at Gleneagles, helping read each other's putts, fist-bumping good shots, and consoling each other after poor ones.

What does it take to win the Ryder Cup?
Hunter Mahan: 'We'll miss Tiger'
St Andrews to allow female members

"Look how far he's hit the ball," remarked one spectator to his friend as McIlroy thrashed a driver off the seventh. "I doubt I'd reach that in three."

But their momentum petered out around the turn, as the other brothers in arms wrested back the initiative. Mickelson and Bradley won all three of their pairs matches at the 2012 Ryder Cup and for good reason.

A full 16 years may separate the two but they dovetail neatly, cajoling and carousing in equal measure.

After Bradley leveled matters with a birdie on seven, Mickelson edged them ahead on the gargantuan ninth — weighing in at 618 yards — after a fine bunker shot went close.

When Bradley holed his birdie putt on 10, it was the American pair with a pep in their step, Garcia and McIlroy trudging behind, buried in conversation.

"Come on Europe, believe!" urged one fan bedecked in a Union Jack flag, and that belief grew when the pair were gifted a hole on 11, winning it in par -- the ultimate no-no in fourball competition.

McIlroy had been quiet, but now he came to life. Two birdies in three holes, set up by accurate, powerful driving off the tee, swung the seesaw towards the blue corner once again.

But Bradley found the green on 16 in two well-struck hits and drained an eagle putt to level the contest, now stretching towards its fifth hour as a blustery wind whipped round the Ochil Hills.

All flat up the 18th, the final fourball match on the course now commanded a gallery that had swelled to maybe 10,000 or more -- spectators clad in an assortment of colors scrambling up banks and standing on tiptoes in the hope of a clear sight of the stars.

And while the quality of golf on the last was average by the group's high standards, bunkers and rough fully embraced, that only added to the intrigue.

Chances came and went, leaving the stage clear for Mickleson to tap home, silence the majority of the crowd and maintain his unbeaten record in the company of Bradley.

McIlroy removed his cap, shook hands with his victors, and trudged off the side of the green.

There was barely time to throw a few platitudes towards the press and wolf down some lunch, before the world No. 1 was teeing it up again in the foursomes, Garcia once more at his side.

Read more: McIlroy's joy - Selfies rule OK

Read more: Flag-waving wives treated like stars

Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:47 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
If golf has a reputation for being a bit stuffy, then the Bryan brothers and their trick shots are a much-needed blast of fresh air.
updated 8:18 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Not many people make the leap from teenage market trader to golf pro and fashion entrepreneur, but that's just what Ian Poulter has done.
updated 6:29 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"Sleep, as far as mental and physical recovery goes, has never been more important ..." says sport sleep coach Nick Littlehales.
updated 5:24 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Joe Miller is devouring his second steak of the day and the clock has barely nudged 2pm. You need lots of fuel to smash a drive 474 yards.
updated 10:49 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
There have been many dark days for Oliver Wilson, but golf's unluckiest loser is finally riding an upward swing of his career roller coaster.
updated 12:48 PM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
They dress like it's the 1930s and they swing antique equipment that eschews cutting-edge technology -- this is hickory golf.
updated 12:09 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
CNN's Living Golf focuses on women's golf, charting the growth of the sport from royal pastime to multi-million dollar machine.
updated 4:46 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
"I don't know how to paint happy," says golf's poster girl Michelle Wie. "I think it releases a lot of the darker feelings in me."
updated 8:13 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Phil Mickelson of the United States talks during a press conference after the United States were defeated by Europe after the Singles Matches of the 2014 Ryder Cup on the PGA Centenary course at the Gleneagles Hotel on September 28, 2014 in Auchterarder, Scotland.
If you're a U.S. golf fan, or Tom Watson, look away now.
updated 7:18 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
A ban on uploading social media pictures from the course at Gleneagles was dropped for the Ryder Cup.
updated 6:52 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
A spot of shopping, the odd spa day and some serious flag waving. Welcome to the life of a Ryder Cup WAG.
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Tom Watson has learned plenty in the 21 years since he was last U.S. Ryder Cup captain, but social media is proving to be problematic.
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Patriotism will reach fever pitch when the USA and Europe collide in golf's Ryder Cup ... and it looks like Rickie Fowler has let it go to his head.
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Pressure is inescapable in the cauldron of Ryder Cup competition -- pressure and ping pong.
updated 7:50 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Millions of golf fans were watching on television with great anticipation. All Martin Kaymer could think about was getting his phone out.