Irish play lead roles in amphitheatre of dreams

This isn't a golf course they've built here, it's a theatre and nowhere is the stage more dressed for drama than the 18th as Tiger Woods painfully discovered yesterday.

Shaped as it is with the green in a steep-sided bowl and with 10,000 surrounding it, amphitheatre wouldn't be too extravagant a description and it would be certainly appropriate because two miles west as the crow flies is the site of the real thing.

The remains of the amphitheatre at the Roman fortress of Isca are still clearly visible and those who died as part of the entertainment there are buried in sacred ground elsewhere at Celtic Manor.

Whether there is any room for victims of this gladiatorial contest I'm not sure. At least Woods's travails on the 18th didn't cost his team because Steve Stricker ensured that they completed a two-up victory over Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher.

After Friday's deluge, the Twenty Ten course was given the opportunity to display its true worth as a platform for an event of this magnitude The first course ever to be custom-built for the Ryder Cup, it not only presents a varied sequence of stern challenges it offers spectators the best viewing available in the golfing world.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the finishing four holes that run along the hillside that skirts the valley. The slope allows vantage points not only to a vast number of hospitality boxes but to thousands of wandering fans. And it performs its greatest service on the final hole.

Yesterday, the well-heeled, and probably well-sozzled, did not have to wait long for the parade to pass by. The first match of the uncompleted first round of fourballs didn't get past the 16th but the excitement when the second match reached the tee of the 575 yard par-five was palpable.

The match was between the Irish pair of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell and the Americans Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar. McIlroy had just sunk a giant putt to win the 17th to square the match.

The 18th rises from the tee to the brow of a hill from where the fairway sweeps sharply downhill to a green guarded by a lake. A big hitter can get an eagle chance by going for the green. Those not as powerful take an iron and lay up short of the lake.

In a fourball it makes sense for one player to play safe and the other to go for glory. McDowell and Kuchar each duly popped a gentle one down the hill (see graphic right). Cink cranked up for a big one and became the first poor soul to watch his ball hit the slope in front of the green and roll back into the water. If ever there was a chance for McIlroy to increase his already blooming popularity it was now. But he, too, misjudged the distance and his ball took a splash.

McDowell's pitch nearly met the same fate as it spun back from near the pin but a slight collar of thicker grass on the edge of the green saved it from the slope. It was enough to earn the Irish a half.

The next match up brought Woods into view. Stricker was the one to play short and the sight of Woods reaching for a wood was what they'd all paid for. As soon as he struck the ball he stuck his left arm out to indicate he'd pulled the shot which disappeared into the crowd lining the green.

Stricker was very well-placed on the green but Woods tried a flop-shot which he duffed. The Americans won the hole and the match.

Several hours later, the first of the foursomes came into view. It was the Molinari brothers who were one-down to Zach Johnson and Hunter Mahan. The USA pair played straight and safe to clinch their win.

Hopes were higher when Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer came down the hill one-up on Jim Furyk and Rickie Fowler. But Furyk struck his pitch shot stone-dead to earn a half.

McIlroy and McDowell reappeared in the amphitheatre in the foursomes but McIlroy put his approach into the bunker and Cink and Kuchar won the point to go with the half they took off the Irish pair in the morning.

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