CHASKA, Minn.—Patrick Reed roared. Davis Love III doubled down twice…and came up aces. Lee Westwood got yippy, Rory McIlroy got chippy and Phil Mickelson played his way back from the brink yet again. And now, at the end of a thrilling second day of the 41st Ryder Cup, the U.S. holds a 9½ -6½ lead. Having lost three Cups in a row, six of the last seven and eight of the last 10, the Americans are on the brink of a cathartic victory, which would cap two angst-filled years that featured an unprecedented level of preparation. And yet, having presided over a blown 10-6 lead in 2012 during his first stint as U.S. captain, Love knows the hardest day of golf is still to come. “It’s been a heckuva couple of days, and I’m really proud of my team,” Love said on Saturday evening. “But if anyone thinks this thing is over, they’re crazy.”
After losing the morning foursomes 2½-1½, the U.S. rallied to take three of the four afternoon four-balls in a wild session that produced 64 birdies and three eagles. The star of the show was Reed, who in only his second Ryder Cup has already emerged as the heart and soul of the American side. Playing alongside a spent Jordan Spieth, Reed lit up Hazeltine National in a performance that was equal parts dazzling golf and over-the-top showmanship. One down after four holes to the formidable team of Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose, Reed single-handedly won the next four holes, the highlight coming on the par-5 6th when he jarred his third shot for a walk-off eagle. Every act of heroism by Reed was followed by histrionics that left Spieth shaking his head and laughing and whipped the massive galleries into a tizzy. Reed may be a goofball, and at times an irritant, but you gotta love the brio with which he plays. Rose and Stenson won 12 and 13 with birdies to claw back to one down but Reed was unrelenting, taking the next two holes with birdies of his own. After the 2 and 1 victory, Spieth relived one moment among many: “We were both screaming. That’s how cool it was. I screamed, ‘Let’s go, Patrick!’ I don’t know what he screamed at that point. He did his signature whatever it was that he’s been doing, the let’s-go fist-pump. What a performance it was. Yeah, it was a lot of fun to be a part of that team.”
In a bang-bang finish you could feel in your gut, the U.S. picked up two more points when Mickelson finished off his star-turn and then minutes later Lee Westwood blew his second straight short putt for a one-point swing that sent the U.S. into the night with a ton of momentum. “I do believe that what happens at the end of the day has extra importance,” said Love, standing behind the 18th green in a golden twilight. “It certainly sets the tone for the rest of the evening and can give you a spark. Put it this way: I think our dinner is going to taste a little better than theirs.”
For Love, the events of the afternoon validated a series of risky decisions. The second-guessing began at 7:35 a.m., when Mickelson went out in the day’s first match alongside Rickie Fowler, even though Phil couldn’t keep the ball on the planet the day before in the same format and he and Fowler had been very, very lucky to escape with a win. (What’s more, Dustin Johnson was riding the pine, even though his long, straight drives can be a massive game-changer.) This time, against Europe’s new dream team of McIlroy and Thomas Pieters, Mickelson and his little buddy never led while getting demolished 4 and 2. McIlroy has been a revelation at this Ryder Cup, with macho golf and in-your-face emoting. Once again there is no disputing who is the sport’s alpha male; Johnson and Jason Day have nearly as much game but nothing like Rory’s force of personality. As for why Mickelson was sent out in a format for which he is ill-suited, Love said, “I didn’t do that for Phil. That wasn’t a gift to him. I truly believed they would win. You saw me talking to [Bob] Rotella; he’s here for a reason. He and Tiger both keep telling me, ‘You gotta go with your gut.’ I felt like Phil would bring it.”
He didn’t, and the ensuing two morning matches were split, as Rose displayed tremendous leadership and typically stout golf in shepherding rookie Chris Wood to a victory over Zach Johnson and Jimmy Walker, two major championship winners who didn’t really play like it. The revelation in the other match was U.S. rookie Brooks Koepka, who teamed with Brandt Snedeker for a wildly entertaining 3 and 2 victory over Stenson and baby-faced rookie Matthew Fitzpatrick, who played pretty well until suddenly he didn’t. Koepka and his partner hit only three fairways, but they never trailed thanks to a palpable chemistry and mad scrambling. “We both had a little inner Seve today,” said Snedeker. Koepka’s smashmouth golf led to four straight birdies to close out the match, and the dagger was his big-breaking 25-foot putt on 15 to push the lead to two up, leading Snedeker to say, “I can’t tell you how good that was. It was unbelievable stuff. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. He’s got no fear out there. My job is to make him comfortable, keep him loose, make some putts every once in a while. We had a lot of fun.”
It looked certain that the U.S. would earn a split of the foursomes and maintain its two-point lead as in the anchor match Reed and Spieth birdied five of the first seven holes and cruised to a four-up lead through 12 over the neo-Spanish armada of Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrero-Bello. But the Americans bogeyed three straight holes, losing two of them, to let their opponents back into the match, and then Garcia and the notorious RCB produced outrageously clutch birdies on 16 and 17 to square the match. Tense pars at the last led to a halved match, allowing Europe to steal a half point and draw to within 6½-5½. The Europeans swarmed the 18th green to celebrate as if the Spaniards had won the match outright. Fitzpatrick gave Garcia a bro hug and yelled in his ear, “That was f—— special!”
Said Garcia, “I had to take a ton of breaths on 17 and 18 because the emotions were so high. All credit to my partner. First Ryder Cup and he reminds me of a little Spanish guy of a few years ago.”
Added Cabrera-Bello, “I’ve really been loving the Ryder Cup experience. I normally get chicken-skin on the last few holes if I’m in contention. Here I get it pretty much on every walk from green to tee, on every hole, on every putt, and it’s extremely exciting.”
For the afternoon four-balls Love again made a series of high-risk moves. He benched Snedeker and his 2-0 record, sending out Koepka with Dustin Johnson in the first match against another pair of titanium-denting ball-bashers, McIlroy and Pieters. In this match 320-yard drives were greeted with shrugs. A 356-yard bomb, like DJ uncorked on the 7th hole, barely rated a fist bump. The 382-yard missile that McIlroy launched on 14? Yeah, that was O.K. In the face of relentless and sometimes profane heckling, McIlroy’s gestures to the crowd took on an angry, badass edge. His laconic opponents simply couldn’t match his intensity, falling four down after 10 holes. Rory ran out of gas late in the match, but Pieters, continuing his hugely impressive Ryder Cup debut, closed things out with a birdie on 17 to run his record to 3-0 playing alongside McIlroy.
In the second match Love sent out two of his weakest performers from Friday, captain’s picks J.B. Holmes and Ryan Moore, against two struggling Englishmen, Westwood and Danny Willett. Clarke was captaining with his heart, not his head, as Westwood is his longtime best friend, but his afflicted short game makes him a liability. Love understands the impulse; he had considered benching Holmes and Moore but allowed, “It would’ve been really hard to sit J.B. and Ryan because I picked them.”
Moore was a non-factor for most of the match, but Holmes kept the U.S. in it with six birdies over the first 13 holes and another at the par-5 16th, neutralizing Westwood’s uncharacteristically hot putting and some timely play from Willett. The finish was highly nervy, four wounded players just trying to hold on. Moore showed up when the U.S. needed him most, hitting a gorgeous seven-iron over the flag at the par-3 17th after Holmes had rinsed his tee shot. After Moore’s conceded par, Willett and Westwood both crumbled, making soft bogeys from the edge of the green to fall one down. They each had downhill birdie putts at 18 to square the match and claim a crucial half-point, but Willett missed from 10 feet and Westwood’s three-footer never had a chance. “I haven’t had that kind of pressure before,” Moore said of what he faced on the 17th tee. “You want to do it so bad, but not only for yourself—for your partner, your captain, your whole team, the crowds here and everyone at home watching. That was pretty sweet, I gotta say.”
Sending Mickelson back out in the third match was Love’s boldest decision, though given Phil’s status as a de facto playing captain maybe Davis didn’t have any choice. Paired against Garcia and a woebegone Martin Kaymer, Kuchar carried his shaky partner in the early going, but Phil the Thrill eventually warmed to the fight, making a bomb on 10 to put the U.S. two up and then finishing off the match with three birdies on the final four holes. “He is the leader of this team,” Spieth said, matter-of-factly.
And so the task facing Europe is immense. Its four top players —McIlroy, Stenson, Rose and Garcia—have each played four intense matches, while three others less talented Europeans have played only once, including poor Andy Sullivan, who has been benched since Friday morning. The potential veteran stalwarts Westwood and Kaymer are a combined 0-5. Meanwhile, every American has put at least one point on the board, and only Reed and Spieth have played four matches. The U.S. team is deeper, playing with more freedom and has never been more motivated. It seems hopeless for Europe, doesn’t it? Vice captain Ian Poulter was presented with this dire outlook on Saturday evening and he recoiled with disgust. “I have one word for you,” Poulter said. “Medinah.”
That was the site of Europe’s comeback four years ago, from a 10-6 deficit. But that was a stronger, more experienced team. For the Europeans, it will take a monumental effort if they are to somehow extend the U.S.’s misery.