GLENEAGLES, Scotland — The U.S. Ryder Cup team’s plucky rookies played like veterans, while Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson ran their record to 4-0 as a pairing to lift the underdog Americans to a 2.5-1.5 lead over Europe after the opening fourballs at Gleneagles.
Paired together in the third match of the morning, first-timers Jordan Spieth, 21, and Patrick Reed, 24, unleashed six birdies and countless more fist pumps while blitzing the once unsinkable Ian Poulter and local favorite Stephen Gallacher 5 and 4 to earn the U.S. team its first point of the Ryder Cup .
Poulter, renowned in this event for his bulging eyes and blazing putter, was uncharacteristically unsteady — and subdued. He missed a short par putt on the first hole, splashed his approach on the par-5 9th deep into the pond and failed to make a single birdie during his round. Gallacher, playing in his first Ryder Cup, also struggled, but it may not have mattered as Spieth and Reed drained putts, fed off each other’s enthusiasm and cashed in captain Tom Watson’s biggest gambit of the morning. It was first under-25 pairing in U.S. Ryder Cup history, and Spieth was thrilled that Watson took a chance on them.
“I don’t know if we were originally going to go out there, but we convinced Captain (Watson) we were a great best ball team,” Spieth said. “It means a lot he has the trust in us.”
On a bright, brisk morning, players struggled with both their nerves and blustery conditions. Reed led the field with four birdies, but many players — veterans and rookies alike — struggled to find their best golf as a massive pro-European crowd looked on.
The opening match went quickly to Europe. Moments after starter Ivor Robson mistakenly introduced Webb Simpson as “Bubba Watson,” Simpson, the last of Tom Watson’s three captain’s picks, tried to laugh it off but hit a 190-yard skyball off the tee to start the Ryder Cup and never found his game. Watson three-putted the par-5 2nd hole and the American duo failed to record a single birdie while falling to Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, 5 and 4.
“We definitely ham-and-egged it well,” said Rose, who made three birdies himself. “We really worked well together today as a team. For the most part, what we did really well is we created two chances on every hole. The speed was tough to gauge, so basically, when you had two putts at it, that was huge.”
In Match 2, Martin Kaymer brushed in a birdie on No. 1, and he and Thomas Bjorn sprinted to a 3-up lead through four holes over Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler. But Walker, the third U.S. rookie, was arguably the best American player outside of Reed and Spieth, as he holed a bunker shot for eagle on the par-5 9th, the first eagle of the Ryder Cup, to pull the U.S. to within one. Bjorn chipped in for birdie on 13, and the gallery roar ripped through Gleneagles. But Walker stepped up again, chipping in for birdie on 16 and burying an 8-footer on 18 to halve the match and swipe a half point after trailing the entire round.
“We have to take it on the chin that a half is a half. We’re pretty happy,” Bjorn said. “Obviously disappointing when you’re up all day, but you have to take it. A half is always good.”
The session’s final match turned out to be a main event filled with brilliant shotmaking and wild momentum swings. Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia led Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley early after Garcia holed a preposterous greenside bunker shot on the par-3 4th. Sergio whiffed on the ensuing high-five with his caddie, and the Europeans lost their grip when Bradley squared it with a three-foot par on the 7th and Mickelson tapped for birdie on 9 to give the U.S. the lead. Bradley then buried a long birdie on 10 to put the U.S. ahead by two.
But Garcia won the 11th with a par and McIlroy drained a birdie on 13, squaring the match and heightening the drama. On the short par-4 14th, Bradley and Garcia drained long birdie putts to halve the hole, and on 15 Mickelson blew a three-footer to hand the hole to Europe and draw gasps from the crowd.
But Bradley got it right back on the par-5 16th by ripping his second shot inside 10 feet and emphatically drilling the eagle putt to square the match.
“It’s like you’re drinking 500 cups of coffee at once,” Bradley said of his clutch putt.
After pars on 17, the stage was set for theatrics on the par-5 18th – but it turned into a test of survival. McIlroy hooked his tee shot and took himself out of the hole with a poor third shot. Bradley drove into the left rough, laid up, and missed a six-footer for birdie. Garcia hit his third into the front bunker and got up-and-down to salvage par. Mickelson found the same front bunker with his second shot and blasted to three feet to set up a birdie putt to win. The 10-time Ryder Cup veteran jarred the putt, punctuated it with a fist pump, and after trailing most of the morning, suddenly the U.S. team had the lead heading into the afternoon.