Rónán MacNamara at the Old Course
Irish players accounted for 2.5 points in the afternoon singles at St Andrews to leave Great Britain and Ireland needing just six points on Sunday to win the Walker Cup for the first time since 2015.
Early on in the afternoon session, Great Britain and Ireland had to weather an early American storm that saw them up in two matches but worryingly down in six with Alex Maguire, Liam Nolan and Mark Power all behind after slow starts.
While Maguire lost out 4&3 to Stewart Hagestad, Nolan and Power produced stunning back nine comebacks to turn the session on its head and McClean dug deep on the 18th for a half point as GB&I won the session 4.5 to 3.5 to sprint 7.5-4.5 clear.
After a nervy start, Galway’s Nolan found himself two down with five to play but played his last five holes in three-under-par including a closing birdie on 18 to edge ahead for the first time in the match and at the perfect time against world number ten Austin Greaser.
Nolan wasn’t selected for the morning foursomes and he was delighted to earn a point on his debut.
“Yeah, that feels really special. It was a bit ropey out there, a few birdies and mixed bogeys on the first 13 holes. Austin missed a putt to win the hole on 13, and I kind of just went like, right, this is where you have to go for everything, and you get this game back.
“I birdied 14 and 15 and hit a lovely tee shot up the last, as well. Absolutely delighted to get the win.”
Meanwhile Kilkenny’s Power looked to be heading for back-to-back defeats like fellow 2021 player Barclay Brown but a huge putt for a halve on 11 and a win on 12 flipped the momentum and he also won on the 18th, beating David Ford to register his first point of this weekend’s contest.
“Felt great. I was feeding off the crowd. The crowd is just unbelievable. I wasn’t sure when I heard the numbers this week, I was obviously so excited, but I’ve never played in front of a crowd this big, so you never know how exactly you’re going to feel in front of it, but just felt great.
“Even though I actually didn’t feel like I was playing great, I just tried to grind it out and just find a way to get it done.”
Following in the footsteps of the ‘Famous Five,’ Ireland’s ‘Fab Four’ more than played their part on the opening day of the 49th Walker Cup at the Old Course with each player picking up a win while Scotland’s Calum Scott and England’s John Gough top scored with two wins from two.
The hosts won the last three foursomes matches on Saturday morning to roar into a 3-1 advantage with McClean and Maguire winning the last two ties to take the lead after the opening session for the first time since 2015.
Scottish duo Calum Scott and Connor Graham stole the show this morning with a fabulous foursomes win before the former backed it up in the afternoon to beat Nick Gabrelcik 2&1.
As in the foursomes, USA struck the first blow in the singles as Caleb Surratt eased to a 4&3 win over Brown before Scott replied to level affairs in the afternoon. Jack Bigham lost a topsy turvy match with world number one Gordon Sargent on the last with the latter nearly holing out from the tee.
Gough and Hagestad secured comfortable wins at 6&5 and 4&3 respectively over US Amateur champion Nick Dunlap and Maguire which left the session down to the middle three matches.
At one stage it seemed as if USA were going to head into Sunday level pegging but sensational wins for Nolan and Power before a potentially vital share of the spoils for McClean with Preston Summerhays capped off a wonderful opening day for Stuart Wilson’s charges.
“It’s as good an atmosphere I’ve ever seen on a golf course, it’s hard to believe I’m here,” said McClean. “It’s the best day I’ve had on a golf course. It was fun out there the foursomes was so compact and loud which was very helpful. It was more relaxed this afternoon, nice to not do 36 with constant pressure and roars. It’s brilliant out there and thankfully I was able to hole a nice eight footer for a half.”
Wilson wasn’t surprised to see his side start so well but he wasn’t getting carried away.
“I’m not overly surprised because we’ve obviously done all the prep and we’ve got the guys here who have just proved that they can hang with the best, obviously, as far as the American team, which are a great side.
“I just think there were so many tight matches out there that certainly this morning, the difference this morning was one holed putt and one missed putt on the last green. It just shows you how tight it is. We’ll just be well aware that it might be us on the receiving end tomorrow.
“It’s all to play for as far as we’re concerned, no matter what the gap in the points is.”
USA Captain Mike McCoy admitted his side endured a disappointing day and feels the tone was set after a tough morning foursomes session.
“Yeah, it wasn’t the day we were looking for, but saw a lot of good golf. The afternoon kind of started the way we were hoping, and we just didn’t close some of those matches we were — we had a couple 1-up, 2-up leads, and we just — they kind of slipped away, and we didn’t flip any of the all squares.
“Yeah, we need a better morning. We know that. But we’ll regroup, and we’ll have a plan for tomorrow, and we’ll be ready to go.”