Battler Graeme McDowell leads the way with Ryder Cup performance
McGinley's belief in McDowell's abilities is fully justified as his back nine breaks Spieth's spirit
It was almost the first decision Paul McGinley made when he was invited to become Europe's Ryder Cup captain. He did not tell anyone, at least not until last Wednesday, when Graeme McDowell found out for the first time that he would be leading off the home side in yesterday's singles.
The reasons McGinley was so adamant about McDowell's role?
"Big heart, big player, loves the big occasion. For me, you need a real fighter in that first game.
"That sets the tone for the day. That's the guy that goes in with the hard tackle, the first hard tackle in a soccer match, and bosses the midfield.
"Graeme is that kind of guy," McGinley added.
Four years ago at Celtic Manor, McDowell was sent out in the anchor role. For nine holes his match meant nothing. There was no crowd, all the action was happening elsewhere.
On the back nine, it gradually dawned on everyone that McDowell's match meant everything. The Northern Irishman, then the reigning US Open champion, did not buckle. He delivered the winning point.
It was a different role yesterday at Gleneagles, one he had not expected at the start of the week, but executed successfully again. "You delivered. You delivered," McGinley told him once McDowell had beaten Jordan Spieth 2&1 on the 17th green.
But it was not just that McDowell put Europe's second point on the board, celebrating with his friend and compatriot Rory McIlroy, who had opened the home side's account with a convincing win over Rickie Fowler. It was the manner of victory by the man they call "G-Mac" that entirely justified McGinley's faith.
Spieth set off at a gallop. McDowell made a slow start and bogeys at the third and fifth holes put the American three up. It was just what Tom Watson wanted from the scarily composed 21-year-old, to put red on the board and give the visitors hope they could get revenge for the Miracle at Medinah and snatch victory from a four-point overnight deficit.
At one point America were ahead in four of the first five matches. Only McIlroy and Martin Kaymer, in the sixth game, were firmly in control of their matches. Spieth and Hunter Mahan had the big leads for America and McDowell and Justin Rose had to do something about it.
When it mattered most, McDowell and Rose stood firm and turned back the tide. Both won four holes in a row, with Rose going on to fight out a half with Mahan. McDowell was helped by Spieth missing a short putt at the seventh to go four up. The next two holes were halved in birdies so the American was still three up at the turn.
There was a reason for McDowell's slow start. The other part of the role McGinley wanted him to play was guiding rookie Victor Dubuisson through two foursomes matches. The captain wanted someone fresh to lead off the singles but this was the first time he was playing his own ball. "Yes, I was fresh, but I nearly didn't have enough tournament play under my belt this week," McDowell admitted.
"I hadn't seen enough of the course, hadn't seen the ball going in the hole enough. That's why I was slow out of the gates. But then something inside clicked and I got it eventually."
Just in time. The putt he holed at the eighth to match Spieth's birdie and avoid going four down was vital. Then McDowell won the first four holes of the back nine to go ahead for the first time at the 13th. There were mistakes from the young American as he suddenly became tentative. At every hole the pair got to, the gallery ringed the fairway desperately awaiting their first view of the action. Such is the cauldron of the top singles in the Ryder Cup. In Europe's team room on Saturday night the talk had been of how to handle going behind in a match.
McDowell said: "If you are three down, just try and win the next hole, extend the match, get the crowd on your side, keep extending the match, and thankfully that was enough in the end."
After the 14th was halved in birdies, Spieth made a mess of the 15th and McDowell held firm. "Huge turnaround win for G-Mac. That's how you lead off," tweeted Luke Donald, a reminder of the talent Europe actually had sitting at home this week.
"McDowell's win was vital," said Colin Montgomerie, the captain who had put him last in 2012 but had experienced leading off as a player in 2002. "This tournament does something to you," McDowell said. "We are all very proud to wear the European shirt. The bonds in the team room are special."
McDowell saved his greatest praise for McGinley. "He's done a phenomenal job this week. To be going against a captain like Tom Watson with his kind of credentials, Paul McGinley has been a superstar in the team room."