With fiery opening day, U.S. Ryder Cup team shows bad old days are in the past

Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson teamed up to beat Paul Lawrie and Peter Hanson 5 and 4 in the afternoon.
Fred Vuich/SI

MEDINAH, Ill. — For decades the American players were asked what was wrong, why they weren't having any fun, whether they cared for each other as teammates, whether they cared at all. Not now, and perhaps not for the foreseeable future.

Change was in the crisp, fall air at the 39th Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club, where the U.S. won three of four matches Friday afternoon to take a 5-3 lead and considerable momentum into what could be a very good weekend. Although the teams played to a 2-2 draw in the morning, the U.S. roared in the afternoon.

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"I'm proud of the whole team," said Davis Love III, who has had perhaps the tougher task of the two captains, given the U.S. team's four rookies. (Europe has just one.) "They played very, very well, and stuck together well."

Change sounded like several roars from half of Chicago as Webb Simpson, one of those American rookies, and Bubba Watson birdied 10 of 14 holes to throttle Peter Hanson and Paul Lawrie, 5 and 4. The reigning Masters and U.S. Open champions, Watson and Simpson never trailed, setting off sonic boomlets amid the howl of passing jumbo jets and the constant thrum of the blimp in the opening afternoon four-ball match. "We ran into a bit of a wall," Hanson said.

Watson and Simpson were 3-1-0 as a team at the 2011 Presidents Cup, and they picked up right where they left off after sitting out the morning matches. They made five birdies each and were 6 up through eight holes.

"It's been an amazing ride," said Watson, who was so loose he encouraged the crowd to cheer while he teed off at the par-4 first hole. (He hit a good drive.) Change looked like the exuberant super-rookie Keegan Bradley, America's long-awaited answer to Ian Poulter. Bradley, the 2011 PGA champion, continued to fill nearly every big moment with big-time golf. He fine-tuned his hugs and high-fives with partner Phil Mickelson as they beat the European super-duo of Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, 2 and 1, for their second victory of the day.

With Bradley already in the left bunker, Mickelson iced the win when he knocked his tee shot to within two feet of the pin on the watery, par-3 17th hole. The two walked off the tee arm-in-arm, McIlroy conceded the putt and the match, and Mickelson high-fived everyone he could reach as he walked back to the U.S. team room with his wife, Amy. Friday marked Mickelson's first perfect start since he won a match a day and went 3-0 at the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill.

"This is one of the most emotional days playing in a Ryder Cup that we'll ever have," said Mickelson, who made three birdies, including two on par-3s, to Bradley's six. "It gets emotion out of every player, good or bad, and this is one of the biggest highs that we've had. I just love playing with Keegan. He's just played so good all day, and it's just kept me up the whole time. It's been awesome."

"It could be the best day of my life," Bradley said.

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Change was a smiling Matt Kuchar making four straight birdies amid the rustling leaves as he and partner Dustin Johnson bounced back from an early, 1-down deficit to beat Europe's Martin Kaymer and Justin Rose, 3 and 2.

U.S. captain Love must have sensed something in the duo of Simpson and Watson as he trusted them to kick off a rousing afternoon session and ignite the crowd, while European captain Jose Maria Olazabal will surely be questioned for benching European superstar Poulter in the afternoon matches.

"Seemed like as the sun came out, we just got better and better," Love said.

Only the heroics of Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts saved Europe from a four-ball bagel. In one of the best individual showings in Ryder Cup history, Colsaerts made eight birdies and an eagle in the first 17 holes to carry partner Lee Westwood to a 1-up victory over Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods.

Stricker struggled in the afternoon, but Woods found his form after a terrible showing in the morning foursomes. With seven birdies in the late match, Woods almost single-handedly brought the Americans back. He made a long, double-breaking birdie putt on 16 to pull to 1 down, but Colsaerts matched Tiger's 2 on 17 to ensure at least a halve. On 18, Woods's roughly 15-foot birdie try missed low, and the Europeans had their only point of the afternoon.

"Nicolas probably had one of the greatest putting rounds I've ever seen," said Woods, who was one of the few American lowlights, going 0-2 with Stricker.

It's early yet. There is still copious golf to be played, and the U.S. led 6-4 after the first two (reformatted) sessions at the rain-plagued 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, and lost. Since continental Europe joined the fray in 1979, the U.S. has led after the first two sessions six times. The U.S. won three of those Cups (1979, 1991 and 2008) and lost three (1985, 1995 and 2010).

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Three of Love's four rookies won at least one point Friday. Jason Dufner was so cool in his foursomes match alongside Zach Johnson — they dispatched Lee Westwood and Francesco Molinari, 3 and 2, in the morning — that he hit the first tee shot and said he didn't feel a butterfly. (The only U.S. newbie not to score at least a point, Brandt Snedeker was up and down as he and Jim Furyk lost in foursomes to McDowell-McIlroy.) Although Woods-Stricker went 0-2 on the day, Woods's seven birdies in the afternoon could portend big things on the weekend.

The last time the Cup came to the Midwest, at Oakland Hills in Michigan in 2004, the U.S. was thoroughly outplayed and lost 18 ½-9 ½ — the absolute low point for a side in total disarray. Whatever happens on the weekend, Love's team, like Paul Azinger's in 2008 and even Corey Pavin's in 2010, has further distanced the U.S. Ryder Cup effort from an era of futility, frustration and blue flags.

Friday afternoon's scoreboard was red. Watson welled up with tears as he spoke of playing such good golf since the death of his father in 2010. Bradley said he was ready to go "another 36 holes." Mickelson, who at Celtic Manor set the record for most Ryder Cup losses by an American, seemed to have caught Bradley's infectious enthusiasm and rediscovered his passion for the Cup and golf itself.

No matter how the two teams divvy up the next 20 points, the only thing this Ryder Cup has in common with '04 is geography. The days of blowouts and blue, of finger-pointing and recrimination, seem like long, long ago.