CHASKA, Minn.—The autumn sun was blinding, the sky was the color of crystal blue persuasion and the shadows fell across Hazeltine National as the first day of the Ryder Cup wore on in the most enticing, entrancing ways.
Damn, this was some day.
The United States enjoyed a stunning morning sweep of the foursomes matches. The last time that happened was in 1975, when the U.S. captain was Arnold Palmer. On the 1st tee on Friday stood the King’s golf bag from that Ryder Cup.
It was a day for goose bumps and deafening roars. Was all of Minnesota here or what? Hey, the last one leaving Hibbing, turn off the lights, would you?
This opening day had almost everything. Unless you were a spectator, possibly dressed up as a red-white-and-blue Viking who parked at the 18th green waiting to see a nail-biting finish. Sorry, but only one match made it to the home hole. Phil Mickelson lagged it close for what proved to be the match-winning par when Rory McIlroy missed a subsequent birdie putt.
It was a long run for a short slide, as they say, for the fans who basked in the sunshine at 17 and 18. Tough luck. None of the other seven matches reached the watery 17th hole. It was quiet there too. Too quiet.
All this day lacked was gripping suspense, but the golf and the setting and the weather were so spectacular, who could complain? If you didn’t love this day, if you didn’t wish you could relive these 12 hours a couple of more times, you don’t like golf.
Old stars shined and new stars were discovered. Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, who played college golf at Illinois, figures to be a Ryder regular. Pieters lost in his morning debut but teamed with McIlroy in the afternoon to win his first point. Ryan Moore, making his debut for the U.S., poured in long back-to-back birdie putts on consecutive holes in the afternoon in a losing cause. Brooks Koepka, another American rookie, sparkled in an easy fourballs victory with Brandt Snedeker.
And there was the usual heartbreak. Andy Sullivan of England delivered some key shots with McIlroy in foursomes, but in a match that was even, it was his embarrassing splash-dunk from the 17th tee against Mickelson and Rickie Fowler that allowed the U.S. to complete its sweep. Even Ryder Cup warhorse Lee Westwood, playing in his 10th Cup, wasn’t spared. Early in his foursome match, it was shocking when Westwood wasn’t conceded an 18-inch par putt. It was even more shocking when he badly missed it, losing the hole.
Aside from the monumental traffic jams in anticipation of the 7:35 a.m. start time, caused by many of the 45,000 fans who descended upon Hazeltine, it was just about perfect.
Hopes were raised and dimmed, not necessarily in that order.
“If the U.S. blows this lead,” tweeted Minneapolis resident Sam Pokorney, the son of one of my cousins, “100% of the blame goes to Zach Johnson for wearing mittens in 55 degrees this morning. It’s Minnesota, sir.”
We frostbacks—I’m a former Wisconsinite living in the balmy climes of Pittsburgh, Pa.—proudly wear our chill-factor tolerance on our sleeves, or usual lack thereof.
Sam’s tweet was a product of the giddy 4-0 American start. Seriously, no task force has ever been that effective unless Admiral Bull Halsey was leading it.
There is a truth that all Ryder Cuppers and their fans know, however. This is an event where the impossible is always possible. The War By the Shore in 1991. Brookline in 1999. The Miracle at Medinah in 2012.
On Friday, Westwood and Pieters got drilled by Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar in foursomes, 5 and 4, emblematic of the European thumping. Westwood’s previous Ryder Cup teams were 7-2. He’s seen it all, including the heartbreak of Brookline, his second Ryder Cup. He knows the Ryder Cup is just like golf itself; there is no getting ahead of yourself, no what-ifs, no never-let-ups. So you’re down 4-0? So what?
“This is only the first morning,” Westwood said. “Anything can happen in the Ryder Cup. It's freaky like that.”
Westwood’s teammates proved as much in the afternoon.
Sergio Garcia put the exclamation on it late in the day. He and fellow Spaniard Rafa Cabrera-Bello won their afternoon fourball match despite Moore’s putting heroics. It wasn’t official yet that the Euros would win three matches, but it looked good.
“Three points would be amazing,” Garcia said. “We’re back in it.”
Within 15 minutes, McIlroy, who is back to totally looking like the best player in the world, rolled in an eagle putt to finish off Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar. Fans poured toward the gates like a fast-flowing river, well aware that the matches would begin anew the next morning: U.S. 5, Europe 3.
Could Saturday at the Ryder Cup possibly live up to Friday’s perfection?
It doesn’t seem possible, but Westwood is right. Anything can happen in the Ryder Cup. It’s freaky like that. Take a deep breath, and let’s get ready to do this all over again.