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U.S. leads by a point after opening four-balls



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NEWPORT, Wales – There’s a surprising candidate for Ryder Cup rookie of the match. Heck, Jeff Overton might just be MVP if the Americans manage to hold on to the Ryder Cup.

Overton made his pairing with fellow rookie Bubba Watson look like a stroke of brilliance, rolling in one putt after another to lead the Americans to an early edge at a rain-delayed Ryder Cup that turned sunny on Saturday.

Tiger Woods also won – with a big hand from Steve Stricker, whose brilliant touch with a wedge at No. 18 clinched another U.S. point and kept them unbeaten as partners.

The Americans held a 2 1/2-1 1/2 lead after the morning fourballs, which finished nearly 24 hours behind schedule because of Friday’s torrential rains at Celtic Manor. The teams faced a busy weekend with a mishmash of a schedule that officials rigged up in hopes of avoiding the first Monday finish in Ryder Cup history.

The tenuous lead boded well for the visiting team, which is trying to retain the Cup after winning at Valhalla two years ago to break Europe’s dominance in the series.

Only twice since the current U.S.-vs.-Europe format began in 1979 has a team that won the opening session gone on to lose.

Overton and Watson – but mainly Overton – provided the first full point for the Americans with a 3-and-2 win over the heavily favored team of Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington.

Having calmed his nerves by rolling in a long putt from behind the bunker at the first hole Friday, Overton ripped off four straight birdies over two days beginning at No. 9 to push the Americans out to a 3-up lead. He drove the green at the 15th, a short par-4, for a birdie that protected the advantage, and finished off the match with a conceded par at 16.

“It’s pretty awesome out here,” Overton said.

U.S. captain Corey Pavin raised plenty of eyebrows when he sent out the two rookies to anchor the opening session. But it sure paid off, especially after the powerhouse duo of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson was beaten 3-and-2 by Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer in the leadoff match.

The Northern Irish team of Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy roared back from two holes down with six to play, halving the match with Americans Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar.

Overton and Watson appeared to be having a grand ol’ time, and Pavin kept them together for the second session: six alternate-shot matches that began just 12 minutes after the first session ended.

Asked if he wanted Overton as a partner, the freewheeling Watson quipped, “I don’t even like him. He’s ugly.”

The Indiana native looked beautiful on the green, making enough big putts to hand Donald his first Ryder Cup loss in team play.

“His putter got hot this morning,” Watson said. “Now I love him as a partner.”

Donald came in with a 4-0-1 record in fourball and alternate-shot, but he was basically a one-man team playing with Harrington, who was taken with a captain’s pick over Paul Casey and Justin Rose, the more successful players this year. The Irishman hasn’t won a sanctioned tournament since the last of his major titles, the 2008 PGA Championship, and he left captain Colin Montgomerie open to criticism by failing to produce even one birdie over 16 holes in his opening round.

But the 21-year-old McIlroy gave the Europeans a big boost, including a 35-foot birdie putt at the 17th to square his match.

The youngster was of no help at the par-5 final hole, knocking two balls in the water after he went for the green in two. Cink tried the same thing – and wound up with the same result: two balls in the drink – so the match came down to Kuchar vs. McDowell.

“I’ve got you covered,” McDowell told his partner. “It’s all right.”

The U.S. Open winner cut it close, his third shot hitting the green and spinning back toward the water before stopping at the fringe. Kuchar missed a 15-footer for the win, but par was good enough to equal McDowell and give each team something to smile about.

“We’re just happy to steal a half-point from that because we looked to be in trouble,” McDowell said.

Cink did most of the heavy lifting for the Americans, using a hot putter to make five of their six birdies, but Kuchar’s safer play at the end ensured they didn’t lose.

“I finally got my chance help out this team,” he said. “I only helped out on like two holes. That was not an easy putt at all. It had a big break and a lot of speed going down there. It just came up a couple of revolutions short.”

Mickelson and Johnson appeared to have the momentum in their match when play was called Friday evening, having cut the deficit from three holes to one. But they couldn’t do anything right Saturday, the match with Westwood and Kaymer ending at No. 16, where Johnson flew the green with a wedge and Mickelson missed a 10-footer for par to extend the match.

“It’s always nice to get that first point on the board,” Westwood said.

The early European lead didn’t hold up.

Woods, playing third rather than his usual leadoff or anchor roles, remained unbeaten in his partnership with Stricker. Last year at the Presidents Cup they won all four of their matches, the first team in 30 years to do that in a major team competition.

Stricker brought ’em home this time, coming through with four birdies on the back side to hold off Poulter and Fisher for a 2-up win. Woods flew his second shot at No. 18 far left of the green, then flubbed his chip. But Stricker, who had laid up short of the water, came up within 6 feet of the cup from 86 yards with his third swing. When Poulter and Fisher both missed longer birdie tries, they conceded Stricker his putt and the match.

Mixed in among the mostly European crowd were a couple of fans wearing cheeseheads, supporting the 43-year-old from Wisconsin.

“The atmosphere here is unbelievable,” Stricker said. “Pro Europe, of course, but it’s still great to be a part of it.”

Neither Pavin nor European captain Colin Montgomerie had any more decisions to make about who to play: all 24 players had to be on the course for the remaining sessions to have any chance of finishing on time.

The second session will be followed by the last two alternate-shot matches, plus four more fourballs. Even if the weather held – and it was warming up nicely after a bit of a chilly morning – the third session likely will have to be finished Sunday morning.

When that’s done, officials hope to have enough time to get in the 12 singles matches. But there was more rain in the forecast, and any further delays surely will result in a Monday finish.

• • •

Results from the completion of four-balls Saturday at Celtic Manor:

Lee Westwood/Martin Kaymer (Europe) def. Phil Mickelson/Dustin Johnson (U.S.), 3 and 2

Stewart Cink/Matt Kuchar (U.S.) vs. Rory McIlroy/Graeme McDowell (Europe), halved

Steve Stricker/Tiger Woods (U.S.) def. Ian Poulter/Ross Fisher (Europe), 2 up

Bubba Watson/Jeff Overton (U.S.) def. Luke Donald/Padraig Harrington (Europe), 3 and 2

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