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Early American blitz leaves Clarke's men on back foot

By Liam Kelly

They whooped, they hollered, they chanted, they sang - and that was just in the pre-dawn darkness of a chilly morning at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minnesota about 90 minutes before Justin Rose struck the first ball to start the 41st Ryder Cup.

Welcome to the USA, European players and supporters.

The atmosphere around the packed stands at the first tee with music blaring, the drums beating, the outbreaks of rival chants was everything we expected.

But make no mistake - the golf fans of this nation have had quite enough, thank you, of seeing their superstars trampled underfoot by the men in blue at home and abroad in the last eight years.

They responded with a sell-out attendance of around 45,000 eager to respond to the PGA of America's orchestrated, yet effective 'We are 13' campaign to drive support for the home team in their bid to end a three-match losing streak.

But not even the most ardent American fan dared to dream that their boys would stomp all over European hearts and minds with a devastating 4-0 clean sweep of the morning foursomes.

Darren Clarke and his players never imagined such a possibility either, and nor did Davis Love III or his team. Who does that in Ryder Cups?

Lost in the mists of time, when plucky but inferior Great Britain & Ireland duly turned up for their biennial hammering, the statistics revealed the answer.

Way back in 1975 at Laurel Valley, USA won the morning foursomes, the first session of the match, 4-0 with a team which included the great Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino.

That was the last time either side managed a clean sweep of the first session of a Ryder Cup in any format.

Slice and dice it any way you like, the fast start for Love's team seriously energised the team and the already enthusiastic home galleries.

Clarke had spoken many times in the build-up of plans to react to various scenarios, such as whether Europe were ahead, behind, or keeping pace with the opposition.

A 4-0 reverse? Few could have imagined facing anything of that magnitude in the battle plan.

The pairings for the first match came as no surprise - Olympic champion Justin Rose and Open winner Henrik Stenson, who went unbeaten in three outings as partners at Gleneagles, against America's wonder boy Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, the street fighter who relished the heat of battle in Scotland two years ago.

Advantage USA with a 3&2 victory. They went one-up after two, they were never behind and Reed rolled home a birdie from 10 feet to clinch the win with a birdie four on the 16th.

"Any time you take on Rose and Stenson, it's never simple," said Reed.

"We had a great game-plan coming in, we stuck with it. We just hit a lot of greens.

"In alternate shot you have to do that, give yourself opportunities. And we were lucky enough to be able to hit a lot of greens and have good looks."

Next up came Phil Mickelson, making his 11th Ryder Cup appearance. A debutant in 1995, he had played 41 matches up until yesterday, winning 16, losing 19, and halving just six.

Not impressive, but Mickelson loves the event, he's never had to rely on a captain's pick, and besides, he was looking forward to partnering fan favourite Rickie Fowler, who had yet to win a match in his two previous Ryder Cup appearances.

They faced FedEx Cup champion Rory McIlroy and rookie Andy Sullivan, and it turned out that this was the day Fowler broke his Ryder duck.

It was tight, but looking good for Europe when they went two-up after six holes. The advantage slipped away with successive bogeys to lie all-square, and then Fowler chipped in from the fringe for a birdie on the ninth hole to go one-up.

They gave it back with bogey on the 11th, and McIlroy did his best to rally from there.

He showed how much it meant when he roared and punched the air following his birdie two from 12 feet on the 13th. More joy on 14, where he slotted a 12-foot putt for a birdie three.

Two-up with four to play - but that was a good as it got.

The Americans made the most of a couple of opportunities that came their way as Sullivan made significant errors, including splashing the tee shot on the par-three 17th into the water.

Mickelson drove the ball all over the place, but Fowler mostly managed to keep them in the game.

"It was a lot of heart, a heart that went out with two down and four to go," said Mickelson.

"It was a match where I didn't drive the ball well. It was a match where I felt more pressure in any Ryder Cup than I felt heading into this one because of the last two years and the build up.

"I played a little bit tight and Rickie got me to hit some shots in the end and hit some iron shots and got the best out of me.

"I really cherish the opportunity to play with him. I knew when I first met him many years ago, he was something special. I never knew that we would play together in the Ryder Cup. But this is really a special moment."

Fowler was chuffed. "To be with someone I've looked up to growing up as a kid, and to finally get my first full point with someone like him, it's pretty special," he said.

Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer never sparkled, and three birdies in the last four holes, plus a European bogey on 15, saw them home by 4&2.

Lee Westwood's 10th Ryder Cup got off to a disappointing start. He and Belgian rookie Thomas Pieters got hosed 5&4 by US Open champion Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar.

The impressive - and arguably ominous sign for Europe - was the business-like fashion in which Love's side kept their mind on the task facing them.

Yes, they got emotional when they holed for birdies and won holes, but facing into the afternoon, nothing was taken for granted.

Love rested Fowler and Mickelson for the fourballs, and shuffled the pack to bring in JB Holmes, rookies Ryan Moore and Brooks Koepka, and Brandt Snedeker.

That meant all his players got a game on day one.

Clarke called up Danny Willett as planned.

The Masters champion got some boos but also some cheers as he took his place alongside Kaymer, while Rafa Cabrera-Bello linked up with compatriot Garcia.

Out went Westwood and Sullivan, while rookies Chris Wood and Matthew Fitzpatrick were left to wait until today to make their debut.

Belfast Telegraph


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