GLENEAGLES, Scotland -- So much for the Americans as plucky overachievers. The one-point advantage the U.S. took at the end of the morning fourballs, built on clutch play by its rookies, gave way to a lost afternoon at Gleneagles, with Europe winning three matches and earning a halve that felt like a victory in seizing a 5-3 lead.
U.S. captain Tom Watson already had a bull’s-eye on his back after some questionable decisions in the morning -- sending out flighty Bubba Watson first? Benching Matt Kuchar, 18th on Tour in birdies, in favor of, gulp, Webb Simpson? -- but for the afternoon alternate-shot session he made the even more curious decision to sit frisky youngsters Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed after they had played the best golf of any team.
All four of Watson’s pairings faded down the stretch in the afternoon, including a couple of ignominious endings: Needing a win at the 18th hole for a halve, Kuchar chunked a pitch to lose (along with Jim Furyk) to Lee Westwood and Jamie Donaldson, while Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson teamed up to three-putt the 17th hole from 18 feet, sealing a 2-and-1 defeat to Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson that had been all-square on the 15th tee.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler lost the last two holes to birdies and let Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia escape with a demoralizing halve.
“We played really well, just kind of killed ourselves in the end,” said Mahan, unwittingly speaking for his entire squad.
“These team are so evenly matched one little mistake can cost you the match,” said Donaldson, a Ryder rookie by way of Wales. “Walking down the first fairway, Lee said to me, ‘In foursomes, it’s all about fairways and greens and making pars, and that will be good enough on a windy day like today.’ But we played four under and they still took it down to the last. So anything can happen out there.”
Indeed, Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley were a perfect 4-0 together in the Ryder Cup after winning a morning thriller with an eagle-par-birdie finish against McIlroy and Garcia, but in the afternoon they never led in a 3-and-2 loss to fresh-legged Graeme McDowell and Victor Dubuisson, both of whom sat out the first session. In a 14-hole the stretch Euros made zero birdies and two bogeys yet increased their lead on a chilly, breezy afternoon during which both Americans struggled with their putting.
“It’s a different test,” said Mickelson’s caddie, Jim MacKay. “It’s so hard out there, birdies are tough to come by. It’s more about grinding.”
Which was a big ask on a second 18 for Mickelson, an arthritic 44 year-old who just wrapped up the worst year of his PGA Tour career.
“I really question playing Phil this afternoon,” his swing coach, Butch Harmon, said on Sky Sports. “He looks a little out of gas to me.”
Mickelson disputed that but, in a nod to fatigue, Watson is resting his team leader on Saturday morning, even though Phil the Thrill is much better suited to fourballs. Captain America looked utterly miserable on Friday evening having to defend his benching of the wiz kids in favor of a tired old man and his struggling partner. Said Watson, “That decision not to play [Spieth and Reed] was a hard decision to make. I had some doubt in making that decision, but with the information I had at hand, I felt that was the best decision…You’re going to be second-guessed…and obviously you’re going to second-guess me on that decision right there.”
Indeed we will, but the real story of day one was the Europeans’ collective refusal to lose. Donaldson and Westwood set the tone in the first match by playing the final 15 holes in four under and putting an important bit of blue on the board, tying the score and giving their teammates a tangible lift.
“Momentum is so important out there,” Donaldson said. “It builds and builds, and the other players feed on it. I could hear cheers going out across the course, and I couldn’t wait to get up to the green myself. You’re dying to hole every putt because you know if you do the place will explode.”
The loss dropped Furyk’s all-time Ryder Cup record to 9-18-4 but he will get a chance to improve that in the second match on Saturday morning in fourballs, where he carries a lifetime record of, gasp, 1-8-1. (Enjoy your breakfast in bed, Phil.)
Watson may control the pairings, but he can’t play magically turn his players into closers. Mahan and Johnson lost control of their match with a soft bogey on the 15th hole, and Stenson and Rose didn’t miss a shot coming in, characteristic of a round in which they teamed for six birdies. (They were just as dynamic in the morning, winning 5 and 4 over Bubba Watson and Simpson, a captain’s pick who popped up his opening tee ball and never seemed to recover.)
“We just didn’t have enough at the end,” said Johnson, sounding a familiar theme.
For most of the afternoon it looked like Walker and Fowler would put a crucial full point on the board for the U.S. against Europe’s marquee team, world No. 1 McIlroy and his wingman, third-ranked Garcia, who woke up on Friday with a gaudy 14-6-4 lifetime Ryder record. After making a mess of the final hole in a 1-down loss to Mickelson and Bradley, McIlcia carried the bad mojo into the afternoon, driving the ball pitifully and displaying minimal chemistry as they were two down with two holes to play. But McIlroy made a match-turning 35-footer to win the 17th hole and then on the par-5 18th Garcia redeemed his partner’s bad drive with maybe the shot of the day, a gorgeous 5-wood from 229 yards to set up a two-putt birdie. “I felt like I owed him a lot today,” said Garcia.
“We owed each other a lot, I think,” said McIlroy.
“We knew we weren’t playing good,” said Garcia. “We fought as hard as we could. Half a point is just huge.”
Fowler, who was carried for much of the morning by Walker, could have won the match with an 18-footer, but he missed by a mile. At least the Americans had a bright spot in Walker, a 35-year old Ryder rookie who played with zero fear. When he heard he would be squaring off against McIlroy, “he was so pumped up,” says Walker’s wife, Erin. “He was dying to get out there.”
It will take that kind of brio for the Americans to fight their way back from a substantial deficit against a stacked opponent. Walker will see McIlroy again in Saturday morning’s anchor match. But first he and his U.S. mates should get a little rest. They need it.