GLENEAGLES, Scotland — Whatever the result of the 40th Ryder Cup—and the Americans trail 5-3 after a bumpy foursomes session on Friday afternoon — in a sense the U.S. has already won. Why? Because it has identified three new stars while putting the lie to the conventional wisdom that this high-pressure event is no kind of place to learn on the job.
Even in the glaring absence of would-be Ryder rookie Billy Horschel, it was Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker — captain Tom Watson’s newbies here — who led the United States on a cold, blustery day at Gleneagles.
“Exciting, exhilarating, heartbreaking, excruciating,” Walker said of his first day of Ryder play, when he and Rickie Fowler earned two halves. “You get it all. It was really fun. So definitely want to come back for more.”
Full of swagger (Reed, Spieth) and quiet confidence (Walker), the rooks were cool under pressure. After chirping about lowering the European team’s morale (Spieth) and saying they were ready to “kill it” (Reed), the youngest two American players won their only match 5 and 4, basically throwing sand in the Angry Bird face of Ian Poulter and Euro rookie Stephen Gallacher.
Walker, 35, holed out twice and birdied 18 to give himself and 25-year-old Fowler an unlikely halve against Thomas Bjorn and Martin Kaymer in their morning match. It felt like a win. Two down with three holes to play, Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia birdied the last three to tie Walker and Fowler in the afternoon. It felt like a loss.
Still, that’s three American rookies, no (real) losses, if you’re scoring at home.
“I’ve played a lot of golf,” Walker told golf.com when asked how he remained composed on the 1st tee on Friday morning. “I just trusted what I had and piped it down the fairway.” If there was a welcome to the Ryder Cup moment, he added, it was his holed bunker shot for eagle at the par-5 9th. “I’ve seen the highlights, all the hole-outs you get in this event. I can go a whole tournament without two or three hole-outs, and I had two within seven holes.” (Walker also chipped in from just off the green at the par-5 16th hole.) “The Ryder Cup just does that. It brings it out of you.”
“The first tee shot felt a lot different,” Reed said from the driving range as he sat out the afternoon matches. “A college event is a college event, but the Ryder Cup—uh, oh, a million people are watching on TV. But after I got it out there I felt O.K. It calmed me down, and I was ready to play some golf.”
Reed, 24, made four birdies in their morning match. Spieth, 21, helped with two. They got a gift when Poulter missed a kick-in for par at the 1st hole. “It was closer than four or five feet,” Reed said. “It was a generous two and a half feet, almost close enough for me to be giving him the putt, actually. But it’s the first hole and it’s the Ryder Cup, and you just never know.”
The key to the match, Reed said, was that both he and Spieth were in every hole, freeing them up to make aggressive strokes on the ultra-slow greens. As they built a lead that got as big as 6 up through 11 holes, they relished the silence, which Spieth likened to the solitude of “a Sunday with your buddies.”
That the young Americans — neither of them straight drivers — were benched for the afternoon foursomes was an even bigger surprise then their stellar play. Spieth later said he was 100% sure they would be sent back out, but he and the baby-faced Reed eventually accepted the news with equanimity. “I was upset,” Reed said, “but it’s the captain’s decision, and that’s part of the recipe, is knowing when to rest guys and when to keep them out there. I knew there was going to be a time when were going to sit because I don’t think any of us is going to play five matches.”
“I thought at the time it was the best decision not to play them,” said Watson on Friday night, all but admitting his mistake. “There were a variety of reasons, but I won't go into those. It was a decision that my vice captains and I made. That was a decision that we felt very strongly for. I can tell you one comical thing, though. When I told Patrick that he wasn't going to play in the afternoon — it was comical at the time, not so comical now, maybe — I said, ‘How does that make you feel?’ He said, ‘Well, I'm all right with it.’” Watson paused, then continued: “He said, ‘Well, really, Captain, I'm not all right with it.’” [Laughter] “I said, ‘That's the way I want you to be.’”
Walker was a study in calm, his enviable tempo never wavering even in the intense pressure of the Cup. Both of his morning hole-outs came with the Americans 2 down. Their half point in the afternoon against world No. 1 McIlroy and third-ranked Garcia would have been a full point had they birdied 18, but it was the only thing that kept the reeling U.S. side from getting shut out in the session.
Three rookies and no losses — it was the kind of thing that might make a person, dare we say it, optimistic about the future of U.S. golf. “Well, yeah, it does,” Walker said. “I'm no young-un, by any means, but we have got a lot of talent and we have got a lot of talent that’s not here.”
As a fellow Texan, Spieth knows Walker perhaps better than most of his teammates do. And Spieth said despite appearances it’s the normally mild-mannered astrophotographer, Walker, who has been the most excitable of the three rookies, showing a different side of his personality.
“We don't have the best history recently in this tournament,” Spieth said, “but if we can bring us new guys in — I don't know if we are doing anything for the guys that have been playing here a while, but to come in and make a splash certainly can't hurt our team at all.
“Hopefully we get out tomorrow morning with the same idea,” he added. “I mean, we've got all the confidence in the world.”