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The humbling of Rory McIlroy summed up the first day of the Ryder Cup here for Europe. The former world No 1 lost twice to establish a personal worst in the biennial dust-up - and did so heavily as the US burst into a commanding and ominous 6-2 lead, their biggest first day’s advantage in 46 years.
They were a gripping curtain-raising few acts lit up first by the sun and the inspired US rookies as the home side “won” the foursomes 3-1 and then, in the fourballs, by the by now customary abnormal serving of Bryson DeChambeau drama. The burly American hit a spectator with his first drive but from there put on an extraordinary display of tee-power in the late winds until England’s Tyrrell Hatton grabbed a half.
On the fifth, DeChambeau launched his drive an astonishing 417 yards, 60 yards further than the next nearest on that par-five. The latter came from McIlroy and led to an eagle, his one under par score in the fourballs. McIlroy, 32, had played every session in the previous five matches and had never lost twice in a day before. And he did not simply lose here. He was star banner mangled.
If McIlroy’s 5&3 foursomes loss in the company of Ian Poulter was considered a wretched one-off then, a few hours later, he shook hands on the same 15th green in the betterball format. After Europe captain Padraig Harrington had decided to ignore McIlroy’s poor form of the morning and pair him with fellow Irishman Shane Lowry, these childhood friends were saw off 4&3 by Tony Finau and Harris English.
With Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay doing the damage first thing, it meant that McIlroy had faced three rookies and come off second best to each. He played only 30 holes and found himself nine-down in this limited exposure.
“When you have got a couple of pairs like that on form, on a difficult golf course where it's sort of hard to make birdies and they go on runs, if you're not quite 100 percent on top of your game, it's tough,” McIlroy said
Harrington dropped McIlroy for this morning’s fourballs, the first time he has ever been benched, but still launched a bizarre defence of his countryman’s game. “Rory is very much a leader amongst his peers and I couldn't have asked more from him today,” he said.
With Dustin Johnson and Schaufelle winning the top fourball 2&1 over Paul Casey and Bernd Wiesberger - making it two out of two for both of those Americans - it was critical for world No 1 Jon Rahm and Hatton to get something and with a nerveless birdie on the 18th, Hatton was the man for the occasion. His approach from 202 yards to seven feet was one of the day’s best shots, although his conversion rivalled it in terms of sheer guts.
Hatton punched the air. Europe will need more of this over the next two days if they are to have a sniff of denying America their first back-to-back home triumphs in 38 years. “I'm glad Tyrrell was able to play 18 the way he did,” Rahm said. “That is a world-class hole, to hit that driver and the 5-iron and the putt to follow it up. I’m glad we could get that halve. It almost feels like a win.”
If only Tommy Fleetwood and Viktor Hovland could have kept hold of their early advantage over Justin Thomas and Cantlay - they were three-up through eight holes. But Thomas finally woke up and holed a few putts and the half was entirely fair. “That was a good momentum boost for our side,” Stricker said. “We finished strong. JT hit some great shots coming in. To win both sessions 3-1 was a great day for us.”
The portents were clear early on. Perhaps it has not reached the point where it can be classed as “a curse”, but after this poor start to the 43rd Ryder Cup the question must certainly be addressed: “Why are Europe always so slow out of the blocks?”
This latest reversal in the foursomes means that Europe has not won an opening session for 15 years, all the way back to the K Club near Dublin. Granted, they have won four of the six matches in that time, but three were at home and the other was labelled “The Miracle of Medinah”. A yet more damning stat fills the air.
The US have held the lead after the first session 13 times before - and have prevailed on each occasion. This is the scale of the challenge facing Harrington’s men.
Even Mother Nature seemed against them. So much for the weather coming to their aid. A blustery, cold few days of practice had given Europe hope that the conditions would play into their hands, but the sun rose over a flat calm Whistling Straits and with the soft greens, this impressive young US team proceeded to make their hay in front of an ecstatic support.
The gusts finally consented to appear and the temperature dropped but by then the home side had all the momentum and “U.S.A, U.S.A” reverberated off Lake Michigan.
In truth, the galleries were not overly raucous and the national anthem that spontaneously went up in the packed grandstand surrounding the first tee at 6.30am, half an hour before tee off, was a joy. But the blissful scene could have done without the booing that greeted the Europe players. Lee Westwood came in for some catcalling in his and Matt Fitzpatrick’s 2&1 defeat to Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger, one of four US debutants to enjoy instant success in that first session. By nighttime all six of Stricker’s rookies had posted at least a point.
With two majors already, Collin Morikawa is a first-timer in name only, as he proved when linking up with world No 2 Johnson to bring down Casey and Hovland 3&1.
In the previous three Ryder Cups, Europe had dominated the foursomes 151/2-81/2 and that includes losing the first session 4-0 in Hazeltine five years ago. So this reversal hurt for Harrington, regardless of his claims to the contrary. "My players played well, I couldn't have asked any more of them," he said. "We've stuck to the plan. I'm happy where we're at. Points-wise we need something else but playing-wise they did their job."
It is truly worrying for Europe if the captain actually believes they played well and still came away two points down in their favoured format.
Little wonder, therefore, that Harrington was thanking the stars for Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia. Without the new Spanish Armada, the visitors’ chances would surely already have been deemed to be sunk with barely a trace.
Rahm and Garcia conjured six birdies to defeat Thomas and Justin Spieth 3&1 in a high-quality encounter. There was the potential for a flash point when the Americans refused to concede a two-footer on the sixth, but that only served to hand yet more motivation to the duo playing in the guise of golf’s original Spanish Armada - Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal.
This was a notable moment in the history of the Cup. Garcia not only extended his lead at the top of the all-time points standings, taking his haul to 26.5pts, but this was his 23rd win in all, so equalling Sir Nick Faldo’s record. At least it was something for which Europe could be proud.
Harrington needs a reaction in the Saturday morning foursomes. Rahm and Garcia go out first - at 7.05am local time - against Koepka and Berger, Casey and Hatton are next off against Johnson and Morikawa, then Hovland and Wiesberger play Spieth and Thomas with Westwood and Fitzpatrick tackling Cantlay Schauffele in the anchor match. It looks daunting for Europe.
US players lead chants but courteous 'country' crowd opt for cheers over jeers
By Simon Briggs
It was a strange first morning on many levels. The so-called “postman” Ian Poulter saw his red van career off the road. Jordan Spieth’s putter ran colder than the lakeshore breeze. And the American fans acted more like pussycats than the ravening beasts of Ryder Cup legend.
Or perhaps that should be mild and gentle sheep. We are in wide open farming country here, a land of dairy churns and tractors the size of tanks. The American captain Steve Stricker predicted beforehand that “mid-west people always seem to be very nice and courteous”, and he was born out as the teams progressed through a brisk and bright first session without so much as a four-letter word.
Of course, the mood could change once the bars – which didn’t open until 10am – have had a chance to lubricate the locals. But the 7am start, plus the chilliness of the early morning weather, seemed to act as a natural sedative. These straits might have been whistling, but they certainly weren’t jeering.
The meanest comment I picked up after a couple of hours on the course was a light piece of mind-gamery aimed at Europe’s most underperforming team. “Don’t push it, Rory,” came the shout as McIlroy stood over a three-foot putt to finally win his first hole. (Something he might have hoped to do before the tenth.)
The remark didn’t come during McIlroy’s backswing or anything. It was just a little pre-stroke poke, which Ian Poulter found annoying enough to meet with a glare in the culprit’s direction.
Mind you, the same gallery had heckled Kentucky boy Justin Thomas around half an hour earlier, after he had botched a chip shot from 50 yards. This was a real purists’ observation, more a piece of unsolicited coaching than a vicious sledge. “You gotta play it to the back of your stance, JT,” came the plaintive cry. “You know that.”
Now, your correspondent couldn’t be all over the course, and it is possible that there were isolated outcrops of verbal thuggery. The most disappointing crowd response – from the perspective of our better selves - was the chorus of booing that met Sergio Garcia as he rolled a magnificent putt in from 24ft on the 15th.
Overall, though, this was a reminder that sports played in trousers are rarely as visceral as those played in shorts. Perhaps the Victorians were on to something when they insisted that ankles can be dangerously subversive and inflammatory.
The only exception to this rule was the crowd around the first tee. The banked stands create a grand stage for the opening shots – a stage that only seems to host pantomime. This unnatural amphitheatre offered a far livelier vibe than the rest of the golf course. And the exuberance was only enhanced by Bryson DeChambeau – a classically American figure in his aviator shades – conducting the “U-S-A” chants before the third group teed off.
Again, there were boos directed at the Spaniards, who opened the festivities when Garcia tugged his opening drive into a bunker short and left of the green. He seemed unbothered, perhaps taking the response as a backhanded sign of respect.
Once he and Jon Rahm had embarked on a fine opening round, the middle two groups progressed relatively calmly. Then, finally, it was Poulter who swaggered out with a provocative air, drawing another playfully hostile reaction.
Where were the European fans? It’s extremely challenging for would-be spectators make it out to a country that still has deep travel restrictions. Consequently, away supporters were as rare as American bogeys.
A small group of eight fellows dressed in yellow shirts and blue waistcoats – the self-appointed “Guardians of the Cup” – tried to make themselves heard amid the din. Unfortunately, efforts recalled Graham Gooch’s assessment of the 1990/91 Ashes tour: farting against thunder. Never mind; their very dauntlessness seemed to charm the main body of the crowd.
With the sun baking down and the beers beginning to flow, a little devilry can surely be expected as the weekend wears on. But the opening exchanges reminded us of the essential decency of these country folk. The slogan on the Wisconsin state licence plates reads “America’s dairyland”. So far, we have tasted little but the milk of human kindness.