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.
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.
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.
"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.