Only three other teams have had a lead that large: Europe in 1987 in Ohio (6-2), Europe in 1999 in Massachusetts (6-2) and Europe in 2004 in Michigan (6½-1½). Only one wound up losing: Europe in 1999. That dovetailed with the trend of the previous three Ryder Cups going to home teams by 16½-11½ in 2014 (Europe), 17-11 in 2016 (United States) and 17½-10½ in 2018 (Europe) to suggest impending doom for the visitors.
“If it’s 6-2, we can come back,” Europe’s Rory McElroy said, a fine bit of optimism after his first 0-2 day at any of his six Ryder Cups, a day that found two teammates and himself deluged, 5 and 3, by pups Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay in the morning and by slightly older novices Tony Finau and Harris English, 4 and 3, in the afternoon.
“I mean, the last two sessions, Xander, Patrick, played wonderful,” McIlroy said, “and Tony, I haven’t seen Tony as good as that in a long time.”
Even to get to that 6-2, the Europeans had to cobble together two half-points in the final two matches: Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton hanging in against Bryson DeChambeau and Scottie Scheffler on Hatton’s seven-foot birdie that won No. 18 to forge the tie, and Tommy Fleetwood and Viktor Hovland scratching alongside Cantlay and Justin Thomas when neither team could quite snare No. 18 but long after the Europeans had been 3 up through eight holes.
Of course, that wise mainstay Dustin Johnson shined for the Americans with two wins alongside two starry new teammates — 24-year-old Collin Morikawa, 27-year-old Schauffele — and Johnson would be the team sage at a far-from-decrepit 37. But the new guys charged just as hard and made themselves a story. Schauffele went 2-0, and 29-year-old Cantlay went 1-0-1 for a point and a half, with spotless single points for Morikawa and 28-year-old Daniel Berger, who teamed with the great and more seasoned 31-year-old Brooks Koepka. Then, when 31-year-old Finau and 32-year-old English finished rolling through McIlroy and Shane Lowry in the afternoon, Finau cupped his ear with flair, the better to hear the crowd.
Rather than tremble, the youth seemed to revel.
“I just love the energy, and I love that type of adrenaline,” Finau said on his second Ryder Cup attempt, his first not bad at 2-1, “and just having that energy behind us. I haven’t had the opportunity to play in front of a home crowd in these international events.”
The crowd had had some day in daydream morning weather and windy afternoon bluster and with appearances by Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry and thousands of others.
Just past 7 a.m. Central time, the first Ryder Cup in three years got going in this remote and picturesque spot on Lake Michigan, beyond the cows and the corn, beyond the clogged two-lane roads of lengthy traffic delays, under a blue sky with a waning gibbous moon sticking around well after sunrise. American fans wore starred-and-striped clothing in the packed No. 1 grandstand. They made brief-burst boos of European players. On a bunker-rich course, Sergio Garcia began the day with a drive into a bunker off the left.
Even that match No. 1, the one that went 3 and 1 to Rahm and Garcia and made Garcia the all-time leader in Ryder Cup wins with 23, might get remembered for an American gem after No. 17 became the site of quite something. Europe had led since No. 7 and stood 2 up at the par-3 hole, but Thomas’s tee shot smacked the embankment right of the green and caromed off seemingly halfway to Michigan.
It meant that for the tandem’s second shot, Jordan Spieth had to play one of the better shots in the six-century history of golf. He began by staring at a wall of earth too tall — maybe 12 feet — to let him see the green. When he finally whacked his attempt, he had to skitter back down the hill to retain his balance, so far he seemed he might end up tumbling into the lake.
Well, the shot somehow landed five feet from the cup, and it looked as if the United States even could win the hole, given Garcia had a five-footer upcoming himself. Then Thomas pulled the putt just by on the left, ending the match but not the American charge, even as the Spaniards had upheld their country’s great Ryder Cup legacy.
“I was clapping [for Spieth],” Garcia said graciously. “I was truly afraid for him to hurt himself because of those wood logs that are there, and it was very close to the wall. So I was hoping that he wouldn’t hurt himself, but he hit an unbelievable shot. I didn’t think there was a chance he could get it on the green.”
Match No. 4 became the eye-widener of the morning. Schauffele and Cantlay, two Californian Ryder Cup rookies, played shouting golf and made a bold case for a new preparation method for all sports teams.
They had sort of prepped in Napa.
They sipped or maybe even gulped there with their other halves, and then they got to Whistling Straits and made stomped grapes out of two Ryder Cup veterans.
Ian Poulter and McIlroy began that match with a combined 11 Ryder Cups of experience compared with the Americans’ zero, but they finished five holes with a combined zero holes won or halved compared with the Americans’ five.
Five down with five done, the Europeans didn’t win a hole until No. 10. Then they also won No. 11 via an American bogey to nibble within three. Schauffele seemed so rattled by that lead erosion that he sent a humdinger of a tee shot to No. 12, within 1 foot 10 inches. Even though Poulter countered that obvious birdie by making a nine-footer to halve the hole, the thing never got any closer.
“We had a nice message from Tiger [Woods] last night,” Schauffele said, “and obviously not going to reveal what it said, but Pat and I knew. We referred to it a few times today, and we knew what we needed to do.”
They all seemed to know, and the compliments flew around. Koepka said of fellow Florida State man Berger: “I kind of know what he’s thinking, what he’s doing before he does it. So it makes it a lot easier.” Berger said of Koepka, “I would say it’s not tough to partner up with a four-time major champion.” Johnson said of Morikawa, “Obviously, he’s a great player” — they both have two major titles, after all — and Schauffele later said of Johnson, “It’s always nice when you’ve got D.J. free-flowing and playing some great golf.”
It all sounded like a heady present and a rowdy future, maybe even beginning Sunday night.