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What a bloody opening day this turned out to be for Pádraig Harrington and Europe. The captain would be forgiven for reaching for smelling salts as the United States dealt blow after blow to its beleaguered Ryder Cup holders. As Harrington pondered how the hell he could fix this situation, he would know all too well that history is not on his side. Harry Houdini died just across the water from Whistling Straits, in Michigan; Europe needs its form of escape act here.
Since the Ryder Cup was modified from 1979 to include Europe instead of Great Britain and Ireland, the US had never led 6-2 after the first day. Until now. The overwhelming favorites played like overwhelming favorites, especially with putters in hand, on what was close to the perfect day for Steve Stricker. The US is already eight and a half points from victory.
While Stricker reminds his American team that they just need more of the same — or even something close to it — Harrington doesn’t have to go looking for his troubles. A fundamental problem is the form of Rory McIlroy, who was hopelessly confused when Shane Lowry teamed up with an afternoon defeat, against 4&3, against Harris English and Tony Finau.
Lowry put his arm around McIlroy for comfort as the pair walked from the 9th green; the level of sympathy, even from a Ryder Cup rookie, was completely understandable. McIlroy made a dejected figure as Finau sealed a point for the US. Finau’s putting was exceptional all afternoon. Later there was opposition from McIlroy. “We can come back from 6-2,” he said. “If it’s 6-2, we can come back.” Social media exploded properly and misaligned.
A reminder of what a formidable match player he is, Dustin Johnson teamed up with Xander Schauffele for a 2&1 fourball win over Paul Casey and Bernd Wiesberger. “It’s always nice when you can DJ free-flow and play great golf,” Schauffele said. “I’m lucky enough to be able to call him my partner now, as I watch him play golf quite fluently.”
Tyrrell Hatton produced a great three on the 18th to get a half point along with Jon Rahm against Bryson DeChambeau and Scottie Scheffler. DeChambeau started his day by hitting a spectator on the leg with a quirky tee shot. He still produced a birdie three on the 1st. By the 5th, DeChambeau’s ride stretched to 417 meters. Still, this exciting match was about skill rather than brute force. Scheffler pushed the US ahead on 15th before unperturbedly keeping the advantage a gap later. The last act was Hatton’s, to bring overdue European cheer. “That was huge for the team in the end,” said the Englishman. “Of course it’s a good feeling to roll it in.”
Tommy Fleetwood and Viktor Hovland had previously emerged as chinks of fourball light for Harrington. They faced Justin Thomas and Patrick Cantlay three after eight before losing 9th and 12th. While Europe desperately tried to hold on, Thomas played a beautiful approach to the par-five 16th as Fleetwood hooked into Lake Michigan. Thomas’s eagle equalized the game. It would end like this after the trade in fours on the 18th, meaning the US went undefeated after the first game of the day. The partisan galleries licked it all up, of course.
The US had carried a 3-1 lead over the foursomes in the fourballs, to mirror the situation in Paris three years ago. The main difference here, of course, was the Striker team’s home field advantage.
Johnson and Collin Morikawa defeated Casey and Hovland, 3&2. Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger pushed Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick 2&1 aside. Cantlay and Schauffele were five after five against McIlroy and Ian Poulter, the American duo who later achieved a 5&3 success.
“We had a plan, we stuck to the plan,” Harrington said as the dust settled on the foursome. “I thought the players played well this morning. That’s match play. We absolutely stuck to the plan.” Was ‘the plan’ inflexible enough to be applied regardless of the score?
The best European performance arrived in game one. Rahm and Sergio García were five under for the 17 holes it took to take a 3&1 win over Thomas and Jordan Spieth. One criticism that is likely to go in the direction of Harrington is that he not only split the Spanish duo for the fourballs, but left García out altogether. With the visitors rocking, García’s experience could have been invaluable. Instead, his afternoon contribution involved trying to perk up struggling teammates. That Fleetwood missed session one also raised eyebrows after his fame in 2018.
Spieth delivered one of the most remarkable day one moments on the final hole of his defeat. The Texan played a remarkable shot of thick, rough-covering wooden sleepers on a steep bank up to 1.5 meters away from the cup. Momentum quickly brought Spieth back down the hill and within two paces of the lake. García stood and applauded his opponent’s efforts before admitting that he was afraid Spieth would injure himself.
“I don’t think I exaggerated that fall,” Spieth said. “Once I started moving, I thought, ‘I have to keep moving until I find a flat spot.’ It’s kind of those shots that you practice as a kid for fun and eventually you don’t want to have. Chances of it going there, you could roll a thousand balls off the green, and it won’t stay where it was.
“I hit a 52-degree wedge because a 60 might have gone over the back of my head. I just tried to shoot it under and hit it as hard as I could, as high as I could. It ended right on a crown where it was a was a tough putt, we just got a really tough break there.”
The US didn’t come across much. Europe notices that they are gasping for breath and something like that, all for inspiration. Different? They need a wake by the lake.
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