CHASKA, Minn. – So what did we learn?
What do we know now at the end of Day 1 of this 41st playing of the Ryder Cup that we did not know before the first shot was struck in anger?
What have we discovered since Thursday late, when the 24 players, the 10 assistant captains, the two captains and the Cup’s in memoriam captain—the late and great A.D. Palmer—left the grounds and headed back to their home for the week, a suburban Sheraton?
At best, we relearned something. We discovered (again) what we’ve known for about 30 years now, that the Americans and the Europeans are pretty even when it comes to golf skill. And since the Ryder Cup ultimately tests aggregate golf skill, it is reasonable to expect this competition will be decided late on Sunday afternoon, amid the long shadows that will bisect Hazeltine National’s lush fairways but do nothing to cut the tension of another nail-biter. It could be Medinah 2012 revisted.
At the end of the first day, the score is America 5, Europe 3, and the game is fully on. Eight matches, with not a single half and only one that went the full 18. By day’s end, the 18th green was suffering neglect. By Sunday, it will be the center of sporting universe.
You most likely know what happened in the morning, cellphone sneak-peaks being such an integral part of office life during the first day of Ryder Cup play. Just in case you don’t: The Americans owned the foursomes, the alternate-shot format that had flummoxed the Americans in Ryder Cup play in recent years. By lunchtime, the score was 4-0. That’s roughly the equivalent of a 28-0 college football game at the half.
Four-zip! If you saw that coming you must have been one serving canapés in the U.S. team room on Thursday night. The last time either side started the Ryder Cup with a perfect inaugural session was in 1975, when the matches were held at Laurel Valley, outside Pittsburgh, a course cofounded by Arnold Palmer, who also happened to be the U.S. captain. Standing sentinel on the 1st tee at Hazeltine on Friday was Palmer’s 1975 Ryder Cup golf bag.
The American play was absolutely inspired, and several Americans said the spirit of Arnold was at work, sort of like when Ben Crenshaw won the 1995 Masters five days after burying his mentor, Harvey Penick. Two Texas golf legends.
At Hazeltine on Friday, the Texas two-step—23-year-old Jordan Spieth and 26-year-old Patrick Reed—went off first, facing a pair of veterans, British Open champion Henrik Stenson and Olympic gold medal winner Justin Rose. The morning was foggy and cool, the stands were crowded and loud, and the American duo won the second hole with a birdie and never looked back. (By day’s end their record in two appearances as Ryder Cup partners was 3-1-1.) The three teams that followed them kept it rolling: Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler (two flamboyant players), Jimmy Walker and Zach Johnson (a pair of steady-eddies) and Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar (a duo of opposites).
“That’s what we wanted with that first team” Mickelson said. “They’re a proven team, we thought they should go out first, get us off to a fast start, and that would set the tone.” Mission accomplished.
So how was it decided who would play second?
“I was eager to get out there,” Mickelson said.
Yes, he would be. Mickelson has been the focus of so much attention, from the end of the 2014 Ryder Cup, when he was publicly critical of the U.S. captain, Tom Watson, to Wednesday, when he was publicly critical of the 2004 U.S. captain, Hal Sutton. More than anybody, Mickelson, playing in his 11th Ryder Cup, called for a new American team philosophy, by which the players would have much more of a voice in decision-making.
Was the choice, for Mickelson and Fowler to go off second, an example of more player input into a decision that is ultimately the captain’s?
“Absolutely,” Mickelson said. “We had a lot of discussion about what the order should be.” You could also say Mickelson wanted to go second and he did.
Mickelson said he was “tight” at various points during the match, but that Fowler “knew exactly what to say and when to say it.” Their conceded birdie on the par-3 17th gave them a one-up lead over Rory McIlroy and Ryder Cup rookie Andy Sullivan, which they held as both teams made grind-it-out pars on the last. Pure Ryder Cup golf. Walker and Zach Johnson tromped all over Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer, and Dustin Johnson and Kuchar did the same batting in the fourth position, over Lee Westwood and Thomas Pieters. It was a stunning scoreboard on a gorgeous day and an incredible tally: 4-0.
Somewhere Arnold was smiling, right?
Hold your horses there, dude.
At the opening ceremony, Davis Love III, the U.S. captain, said, “This one’s for you, Arnold.” But he also said that Arnold should be an equal-opportunity presence, and that’s what he seemed to be.
Love kept two teams, and in the same spots, for the afternoon better-ball competiton. Spieth and Reed again went off first and again faced Rose and Stenson, but they were trounced, 5 and 4. Dustin Johnson and Kuchar went last, facing McIlroy and Pieters. It was the last match standing, and McIlroy made a pop-boom-pow eagle on the par-5 16th, against Kuchar’s birdie, to close out the match, 3 and 2.
Sandwiched between those two matches, J.B. Holmes and Ryan Moore lost, 3 and 2, to the Spanish-speaking team of Sergio Garcia and Rafael Cabrera Bello. The only U.S. sunshine in the afternoon came from the team of Brand Snedeker and rookie Brooks Koepka, who won handily over Martin Kaymer and Masters champion Danny Willett, brother of the writer, 5 and 4. It was a stunning turnaround. An afternoon session during which the Europeans absolutely announced that they are in this thing.
It might have been, in football terms, 28-0 halfway through the day, but at the end of it the score was 31-28.
“We were 4-nil down going into this afternoon and I thought the whole team showed a lot of heart there,” McIlroy said. “We played for each other. We went out there with the mind-set that if we could just win this session somehow, we would be right back in it.”