Europe took its first 3-1 Ryder Cup lead since 1971. In doing so, it improved its four-ball dominance over the United States to a 421⁄2-251⁄2 record since 1985. And it furthered the four-ball blues of one Tiger Woods.
All of which had an ecstatic European captain, Sam Torrance, speaking in exclamations.
“Fantastic!” Torrance said after the opening session. “What a morning! . . . Brilliant! Magic!”
U.S. captain Curtis Strange used a different word. “Surprising,” he said.
Phil Mickelson, whom Strange called America’s best match player because of his record (6-3-2 coming in) and birdie prowess, teamed with David Toms for the Yanks’ lone victory. They beat Padraig Harrington and Niclas Fasth, 1 up.
Toms, in his first Ryder Cup, made six of the U.S. side’s nine birdies, including a 35-footer at the par-3 12th for a 3-up lead. The Americans averted a halve when Harrington’s 15-foot birdie attempt at 18 horseshoed out. Fasth made five of his duo’s eight birdies.
Though that match featured 17 birdies, it wasn’t the best of the morning. Nineteen were made in Thomas Bjorn and Darren Clarke’s 1-up victory over Woods and Paul Azinger, one of the best duels in Ryder history. The two chain-smoking Tiger killers made 10 birdies in shooting 62, the losers nine.
“Nine under will win 95 out of 100 matches,” said Azinger, whose fourth birdie came when he hit a 7-iron to 5 inches from 178 yards at the 18th. “But it just didn’t win this time.”
Bjorn made a 15-foot birdie putt at 18 to halve the hole and secure the win. Five of Bjorn’s six birdies came on putts from 10 feet or farther, including one from 40 feet at the 12th. Bjorn, who stiffed a shot at 16 for a 2-up edge, heated up after Clarke birdied the first three holes on putts inside of 8 feet. Clarke also made a 20-footer for a halve at 13.
“Those guys were making putts from everywhere,” Azinger said of the two Europeans, both among the few players who have beaten Woods head-to-head in tournaments. “It was just unreal.”
Inexplicably, Woods, the world’s No. 1, dropped to 1-8 in four-ball play in Ryder and Presidents Cups combined, including eight losses in a row. He used driver only twice Friday morning on a tight Belfry course with fairways that pinch in at about 290 yards.