By Martyn Herman
PARIS (Reuters) – American rookie Justin Thomas secured a dramatic victory in a ding-dong battle with Rory McIlroy as his opponent cracked on the 18th hole to give the U.S a glimmer of hope on the final day of the Ryder Cup on Sunday.
The 25-year-old often trailed against the four-times major champion but secured the win down the last as McIlroy suffered a calamitous end to his round — taking two shots to get out of a fairway bunker then finding water.
With Thomas safely on the green after two nerveless blows, McIlroy offered his hand to concede the first of the eight points the U.S. needed to retain the trophy having won in Hazeltine two years ago.
It was Thomas’s fourth point of the weekend — the best haul for an American rookie since Larry Nelson in 1979.
Thomas, who won three points playing with Jordan Spieth on Friday and Saturday, was gracious in victory.
“It was an extremely unfitting way for that match to end. I’m very happy to get the point for our team, but I didn’t want to get it like I that,” he said.
“I told Rory I’ve looked up to him for a long time, and I’ve always respected the way he’s treated me so it was pretty cool getting thrown out there in the first match against him.”
With Europe needing only 4.5 points from the 12 on offer in the singles matches the opening duel was crucial for Jim Furyk’s U.S. side.
It proved to be a matchplay classic played out in an electric atmosphere on a sun-kissed Le Golf National Course.
Seeking to overturn a 10-6 deficit on the final day — something achieved only twice in the Ryder Cup — the Americans needed an early boost.
Thomas provided it as he battled McIlroy and most of a huge crowd packed along the fairways and perched on the banks around the amphitheatre-like greens chanting “Rory Rory”.
Having won the first with a long birdie putt he trailed by a hole at the midway point but tickled in a long birdie on the 10th.
Both players suffered a frustrating day with the putter, especially McIlroy who made only one birdie all day despite some glorious irons.
Thomas chipped in from the fringe to save par on the 12th and stay level but threw away the 13th with a missed putt.
He would not go away though and a magnificent approach to the par-five 14 allowed him to level again.
McIlroy made a magical save at the 17th and the match headed down the last — only the third to reach the dramatic water-lined 18th so far this week.
It turned into a house of horrors for McIlroy as his tee shot found a bunker and the ball plugged.
His attempt to extricate it merely left it back in the sand and then his second escape attempt flew out and into water.
Meanwhile Thomas played two superb shots to the green and was soon celebrating his fourth point of a superb debut.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)