Young guns McIlroy and Fowler hint at exciting rivalry

By Martyn Herman

LONDON (Reuters) - Emerging from the mud, sweat and tears of arguably the greatest Ryder Cup ever contested was the hint of a rivalry that could shine as brightly as the sunshine that finally arrived in south Wales on Monday.

Virtually all the 11 first-timers on view over four dramatic days at Celtic Manor contributed some special moments.

Jeff Overton's hole-out eagle on Saturday, Francesco Molinari's glorious approach to three feet at the 18th on Sunday to seal what turned out to be a crucial half point for Europe lodged in the memory.

The excitement created by American Rickie Fowler and Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy suggested golf now has two fearless young warriors who will surely be fighting for majors over the next decade.

Both 21-year-olds stand out from the crowd even if their performances at Celtic Manor were mixed.

McIlroy's shaggy mop of black curly hair and Fowler's technicolour wardrobe and boy-band looks are heaven sent for golf promoters on both side's of the Atlantic looking to sell the sport to the Playstation generation.

More importantly, however, they both proved over the weekend that, in the heat of battle, they could deliver under pressure.

McIlroy's contest with former British Open champion Stewart Cink on Monday was matchplay golf at its most gripping.

All square and under tremendous pressure, McIlroy appeared to have blown it when he hit his second shot into a greenside bunker at the 18th and then left his third shot in the sand.

Lesser characters could have gone to pieces but McIlroy composed himself, chipped to six feet and holed the bogey putt which was good enough for half a point.

Wildcard Fowler's Sunday performance was even more impressive as he came from four behind after 12 holes against Edoardo Molinari to steal a half point thanks to a curling 30-foot putt on the 18th to keep his side alive.

He sunk a similar effort on Saturday to secure himself and partner Jim Furyk a half in their foursomes against Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer and his performance thoroughly justified captain Corey Pavin's faith in the upstart from Disneyland.

"Rickie was amazing," Pavin said. "He's that kind of kid, and I think we'll see him a lot more of him in Ryder Cup venues in the future."

However, after scoring two points in the 14 1/2 13 1/2 victory he described the experience as the best of his golfing career and the experience he gained in front of some of the biggest crowds seen on a golf course will be valuable.

"You know, I'm still very, very young," a drained McIlroy said on Monday. "I don't want to miss a Ryder Cup for the next 20 years."

They did not face each other directly at Celtic Manor but despite playing most of their golf on different sides of the Atlantic, it must be hoped that their paths cross regularly before the Ryder Cup returns at Medinah in 2012.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Justin Palmer)