MEDINAH, Ill. –- The American fans’ apprehension was understandable early Friday. They’ve seen too many losses, many in lopsided fashion, in this competition. And, sure, their side held home-field advantage, but the pairings seemed to work in Europe’s favor. The United States had rookies on its first three teams, and they had to face three players who’ve been No. 1 in the world – Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood – and a passionate Ryder Cup performer in Sergio Garcia.
Americans’ concern was confirmed when they fell behind early. For much of the front nine, there were three blue flags on scoreboards around Medinah Country Club, signifying European leads. All four American teams trailed when their matches reached the seventh hole.
But how quickly things changed on this cool fall morning at Medinah, as back-nine rallies allowed the United States to salvage a 2-2 tie. For much of the morning, the outcome looked like it would be so much worse for the host team.
“I noticed the board; I’m not going to lie to you,” said Zach Johnson, who earned a 3-and-2 victory with teammate Jason Dufner. “The one thing I did notice, though, it was very early in the match. This is not a sprint by any means, and it’s a marathon. You’ve just got to stick to your routine, stick to your process. The difficult thing for me out there is really just kind of keeping nice and calm.”
Johnson and Dufner, 1 down down through eight holes, birdied Nos. 9 and 10 to quickly turn their match. They didn’t lose a hole on the back nine. Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson, the frequent practice-round partners, played their best when the pressure was highest, scoring a 4-and-3 victory over a previously unbeaten Luke Donald-Sergio Garcia team.
Europe’s scored its points when Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell held off a charge from Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker. McDowell’s 5-foot par putt on 18 ensured a 1-up victory. The Europeans’ other victory came in the final match, as the All-England Club of Justin Rose and Ian Poulter responded each time Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker tried to rally. Woods struggled to find a fairway and the team lost, 2 and 1.
Poulter had to make a 10-foot par putt to maintain Europe’s 2-up lead on the 16th green. A miss would’ve brought the Americans back into the match and give them a chance to win the morning session. Poulter made it, adding to his long list of clutch Ryder Cup putts, and allowed the Europeans to go dormie 2.
The United States’ turnaround began when Dufner made a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 10 to give his team a 1-up lead in the day’s third match. It was the first time that a U.S. team had led past the fourth hole. Dufner’s teammates quickly joined him on the red side of the leaderboard, and they did so dramatically.
Mickelson and Bradley were 1 down through eight holes against Donald and Garcia. Mickelson’s 15-foot birdie putt on the 13th put the team 2 up. His rookie teammate holed a 30-footer to clinch the 4-and-3 win. Bradley’s caddie, Steven Hale, swung the flag overhead like a hammer thrower to celebrate Bradley’s first point in what seems to be a promising Cup career.
“I love, love playing with this man,” Mickelson said. “He’s just so fun, loves the game and plays with such excitment. And man, can he roll the rock.”
Donald and Garcia had been 4-0 as a team. They were a combined 14-0-1 in the format, and had had success at Medinah. Garcia was runner-up here in the 1999 PGA, and both Europeans tied for third seven years later.
The United States also rallied against McIlroy and McDowell, squaring the match after enduring the Northern Irishmen’s six birdies in a seven-hole stretch. The United States was 3 down after 12, but squared the with birdies on 14-16. Furyk hit driver on the drivable 15th to force the hand of McDowell, who pushed his tee shot into the lake. Furyk then stiffed hybrid to 2 feet to win the next hole. The U.S. lost 1 down, though, when Snedeker’s tee shot on the final hole sailed into the right trees and their opponents saved par from greenside sand.
It all added up to a 2-2 tie after the Ryder Cup’s opening session, an acceptable score for the Americans after the way things started.