Ryder Cup: Advantage America
Imagine playing Barcelona with three Lionel Messis. That's what Europe's golfers faced on an afternoon of withering precision from the United States. Keegan Bradley dazzled all day, smashing the unbeaten foursomes record of Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald in the morning and the pride of European golf in the afternoon. Yes Rory McIlroy, too, had no answer. Bradley's partner, Phil Mickelson, was little more than an observer with a privileged view.
Bradley was matched in the fourball detonation zone by Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, who left Paul Lawrie and Peter Hanson in need of oxygen by the turn, already six down. Lawrie's birdie at the 11th was the first hole claimed, but by then it was about limiting the embarrassment. The morning foursomes, which ended all square, were not without pointers. If only Europe's Jose-Maria Olazabal were flexible enough to respond to the obvious. He had made his selections on Thursday afternoon and was sticking by them. As a result, Ian Poulter, who alongside Justin Rose had accounted for Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker in the morning, was asked to sit out the afternoon. The decision looked poor. With hindsight it appeared even more suspect.
Poulter was a belligerent presence, offering the kind of bloody defiance that is required when the roof is caving in. "I would have loved to have played five matches but I realise that we are a team and Ollie wanted to get everybody playing Friday. Four guys have to change from the morning round. He said to me he wanted to keep me fresh going through Saturday and Sunday."
Very generous of you, Ian. McIlory and Graeme McDowell, winners at the last hole in the morning against Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker, lost each of the first three holes in the fourballs. Though they contained Bradley of sorts thereafter, they could not rein him in. Rose and the underperforming Martin Kaymer were systematically shredded on the front nine by Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson, falling three behind after eight holes. Thank mercy for rookies. The long-striding, heavy-hitting Nicolas Colsaerts, making his Ryder Cup debut with a subdued Lee Westwood in the penultimate match of the day against Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, walked through the storm unabashed.
Of the many highlights, his demolition of the par-five 10th, rolling his ball to within seven feet of the pin in two mighty swipes, was arguably the pick. The eagle putt dropped to take him seven under par for his round. Rookie heaven by any measure. Another birdie from 25 feet at the 13th restored Europe's two-hole advantage, which, with four holes to play, had shrunk to one. By then Bradley and Mickelson had secured a fourth point for the Americans. With Kuchar and Johnson, two up with five to play, well placed to make that five, Olazabal needed to dip into the Agincourt speech box overnight to restore some kind of order.
You would not be inviting ridicule to imagine that Donald and Garcia, despite their foursomes drubbing, and Poulter, will be busy boys today. Westwood and Kaymer, perhaps, less so. The atmosphere will not be any calmer. The first tee box on the Friday morning of the Ryder Cup has become one of the great set-pieces across the sporting cannon. Unlike the scripted hoopla of the opening ceremony this pageant needs no enhancement, nor indeed any contribution from PGA of America ambassador Justin Timberlake. Chicago's first athlete, Michael Jordan, was there yet that is both desired and allowed.
The job of tee box cheerleader fell to America vice-captain Freddie Couples, who whipped up the partisan crowd with oversized hand gestures followed by a hearty back slap for the American team as they stepped into the arena, led by Furyk in a beanie hat. It was McDowell who brought the crowd to order having accepted the honour on behalf of Europe. Enveloped by a sudden, heavy silence McDowell addressed his ball. This was it, the first tee shot of the Ryder Cup. Like that awkward frisson on a first date when lips come together, it was perhaps something just to get out of the way. You guessed it. McDowell missed the target left.
The faux camaraderie that characterised the build-up lasted all of one hole. At the second Furyk challenged the request for a drop after McIlroy's tee shot at the par-three had come to rest adjacent to a sprinkler head. McDowell, not unreasonably, felt the sprinkler was intruding and asked for a ruling.
Furyk weighed in with his disapproval. "I've known you guys a lot of years and that is not drop," he said. He was right in the end but veracity was not by then the issue. It was about control, about bossing the scene, about testing the mettle of Europe's lead pairing. It worked. McIlroy eventually missed his putt from six feet to unleash an early chorus of "USA, USA."
And thus began the first momentum swing of a thrilling morning. Olazabal was brazen in front loading the day, sending out his big dogs early to rack up the points. His American counterpart Davis Love III raised eyebrows leaving two major winners, Watson and Simpson, and the Players champion, Kuchar, to idle away the morning, and when Europe established an early lead in all four matches the American strategy appeared compromised. McIlroy and McDowell recovered the loss of the second hole at the fourth before motoring into a commanding position with a run of five birdies in six holes to lead by three with six to play.
But this would not be the Ryder Cup without the other guy climbing off the deck. When Furyk fired his hybrid at the 16th pin coming to rest within four feet of the flag, the putt left to Snedeker was to bring the match all square. Behind them Bradley was sinking a 40-footer on the 15th to seal a four and three victory and take the first point of the match for the United States. Jason Duffner continued the theme, knocking in a three-footer on the 16th to see of Westwood and Francesco Molinari. Europe needed a break and got one when Snedeker sprayed his tee shot at the last. McIlroy splashed out of a greenside bunker to leave McDowell a five-footer to claim Europe's first point of the contest.
Opening day scoreboard: USA 5-3 Europe
Mickelson/Bradley bt Donald/Garcia 4&3
Furyk/Snedeker lost to McIlroy/McDowell 1 UP
Dufner/Z Johnson bt Westwood/Molinari 3&2
Woods/Stricker lost to Poulter/Rose 2&1
Watson/Simpson bt Lawrie/Hanson 5&4
Mickelson/Bradley bt McIlroy/McDowell 2&1
Woods/Stricker lost to Westwood/Colsaerts 1 up
D Johnson/Kuchar bt Rose/Kaymer 3&2