Europe’s Saturday comeback showcased the madness of match play

England's Lee Westwood has looked like the best player in the world this week, winning a point and a half in his first two matches.
Robert Beck/SI

NEWPORT, Wales — There is a simple explanation for the strange happenings at the Ryder Cup. By strange happenings, I mean the Americans’ holding a 6-4 lead after the rain-delayed first two sessions and looking like really, honestly, the better team (even if they don’t have the better raingear).

The simple explanation? That’s match play.

It’s weak, I know, and just once after some guy made a 9 at the U.S. Open I wish he’d shrug his shoulders and say, “That’s stroke play.”

It’s too early to call a U.S. upset. Only 10 of 28 matches are completed; we’re not even at the halfway point. But we’ve seen plenty in two days, enough to understand that something is brewing at Celtic Manor. No matter what happens in the rejiggered schedule with six matches on the course that didn’t finish on Saturday, and the European team had a serious rally in progress by the time darkness fell, the U.S. was going to sleep on a 6-4 lead. And that’s not a bad thing.

What was a bad thing for the Americans was that the Euros led in all six matches when darkness stopped play. Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker were 4 down at the turn (and not 5 down only because Stricker made a 20-footer at the 9th) to Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, Europe’s mightiest team. That’s a serious, Uh-oh!

“None of these games are finished,” European captain Colin Montgomerie said, “but we’re in a very strong position.”

Heading into singles play on the short end of a 10-6 score on the opposition’s soil could set things up for a blowout at Team USA’s expense. But that’s fodder for another day.

Here’s what we know now and what we think we know:

• What got the Americans into position to win and made them a good underdog pick in the first place, their superior putting skills, is also what deserted them on Saturday afternoon when the cup started looking like it was the size of a barbecue pit to the Europeans. With no match going farther than the 9th hole, Europe had racked up 14 birdies to seven for the U.S. If timeouts were allowed in Ryder Cup play, U.S. captain Corey Pavin would’ve taken one at about 5 o’clock to slow the bloodletting as the scoreboards turned from U.S.A. red to European blue with a vengeance.

• It’s too bad the Ryder Cup doesn’t count toward World Ranking points. Because we already know what the rankings haven’t realized: When healthy, Westwood is the No. 1 player in the world. The word is from rankings wonks that Westwood is going to move up to No. 2 next week, anyway, and will slip past Woods into No. 1 before the month is over as Tiger loses points accrued from two years ago.

All you have to do is watch Westwood, who has been sidelined with a calf injury since early August, outclass everybody he plays with. He has been the man of the match for Europe this week and after winning twice more, he has played 25 two-man matches and lost only six of them.

• Who’s going in the envelope on Sunday afternoon? The envelope is used in case a member of either team is somehow unable to play in singles. If a player bows out, the player whose name was put in the envelope by the captain will also sit out and both teams will get half a point. The idea is to put your weakest player’s name in the envelope. Two leading candidates for that, as unlikely as it may sound, are Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington. Pavin and Monty would never bench major champions with their kind of experience, would they?

You wouldn’t think so. But those two may be playing the worst golf for their respective sides. Mickelson teamed with Dustin Johnson and neither played very well in a pair of losses. Phil’s Ryder Cup record fell to 10-16-6, tying Raymond Floyd for most matches lost by an American. Harrington dragged down Luke Donald in an opening four-ball match, then went along for the ride as Ross Fisher carried him to a 3-and-2 victory over Mickelson and Johnson. Padraig looks nothing like the man who won three majors in two years, the most recent at the 2008 PGA Championship.

Mickelson is a bigger disappointment because the reigning Masters champion was being counted on to help carry the Americans, what with Tiger not as his best. Harrington was a mildly controversial pick because he hasn’t played his best over the last two years, had a poor record in the last two Cups and was picked as a wild card over Paul Casey, ranked in the top 10 in the world, and Justin Rose, a two-time PGA Tour winner this year.

What’s it all mean for Sunday? Maybe they’ll get drawn to play each other in singles. Somebody has to win.

• A star was born in the first two sessions in Jeff Overton, a non-winner on the PGA Tour who wasn’t necessarily expected to play a major role this week. All he did was carry Bubba Watson to a stunning first-round upset of Harrington and Donald and his hot putting enabled him and Watson to push Donald and Ian Poulter to the limit in foursomes play, where they lost a lead and ultimately a close match, 2 and 1. It’s hardly a news flash about Overton — the man can putt. He, Steve Stricker and Stewart Cink wielded the hottest blades, big reasons the Americans had an early lead, and the TV exposure probably made the Indiana alum a star.

• What’s the opposite of a star is born? Maybe a star is exposed? Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, everyone’s favorite boy wonder, didn’t play very well in the opening match, although he did hole a couple key putts. His play was scratchy in foursomes, too, and he was the goat in a crucial foursomes moment. McIlroy and U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell were 1 up over Cink and Matt Kuchar with three holes to play but lost the match. McDowell hit it close at the par-3 17th after the Americans tied the match, but Cink drained a wild 30-footer for birdie and McIlroy, whose putting looks like the one thing that may keep him from developing into the superstar we all think he’ll be, barely caught a piece of the hole with his six-foot birdie putt.

At the par-5 18th, Cink played safely to 20 feet below the hole. McIlroy had a sand wedge in his hands from 96 yards and, needing to hit it close, pushed his shot to the right, down an embankment and into a deep bunker. Europe lost the match and a crucial swing point, and McIlroy essentially lost the last two holes himself.

• If it had happened on Sunday, Rickie Fowler would have replaced Johnson (of PGA Championship bunker fame) in the race for golf’s Bonehead Move of the Year. Fowler was paired with Jim Furyk in an alternate-shot match when Furyk hit the team’s tee shot into a quagmire of mud outside the gallery ropes. The Americans got a drop and somehow Fowler got Furyk’s ball mixed up with another one he had in his pocket and dropped the wrong ball in play. By rule, you have to finish a hole with the same ball you started (unless you claim a lost ball or hit it into a hazard). The Americans forfeited the hole. Fowler rebounded by making a clutch putt on the final green, a four-footer for birdie to gain a crucial halve.

• Wales is a wonderful country and a deserving host for the Ryder Cup, but Celtic Manor is a bad idea, especially in early October when the fall rainy season begins. Situating a course at the bottom of a valley is just as good an idea here as it was at La Costa in California. In other words, not a very good one. The water has nowhere to drain unless it can run uphill. There must be a good spa at Celtic Manor because even on Saturday morning, the areas outside the ropes were one big mud bath. A bigger quagmire than the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black? Yes. Somebody pass the garden hose.

• In case you were wondering if it’s more important for raingear to look trendy or to repel water, the U.S. team settled the argument. After dropping an estimated $7,500 to buy new rainsuits for the players and caddies following Friday morning’s deluge, the Americans can tell you the part about repelling water is more important.

• Sunday’s forecast is for periods of showers. How much more rain can Quagmire Manor take before it becomes unplayable again? (And even a small delay on Sunday will probably cause play to spill over to Monday.)

Like the rest of the matches, wait and see.