Euros run over Americans on Day 1 at Ryder Cup
One of the easiest things to do at a Ryder Cup is second guess the captain. Your team plays well, you’re a genius. Your team stinks out the joint and you’re a bum.
After the opening day of play at the latest edition of the biennial battle between Europe and the United States, Luke Donald and Zach Johnson have found their appropriate positions. After all, how else to explain the beat down the Euros put on their American counterparts? It had to be the captains and their decisions.
For the first time in Ryder Cup history, the U.S. failed to win a match and the Europeans have moved out to a 6.5-1.5 lead.
“I think it's pretty simple,” summed up Johnson. “From my vantage. . . it looks like the European team executed golf shots a little bit better than we did today, and that's golf. So you tip the cap to Luke and his team.”
Certainly Donald and his 12 players executed supremely well. And they did so on a course groomed to strengths, which is hitting fairways. Add in some brilliant putting and a few good breaks such as a handful of timely chip-ins and it’s easy to understand the lead.
You can also look at what Johnson did and perhaps scratch your head. Why, for instance, did Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns lead off in the morning Foursomes session? That duo lost two Foursomes matches at last year’s Presidents Cup against less formidable opponents.
And why was Brooks Koepka, perhaps the most intimidating American player, left to play the role of cheerleader for the morning, sitting in the fairways when he could have been trying to pummel his opponents with his glare?
While it wasn’t really offered up as an excuse, Johnson added that his team has been ailing, although he didn’t give specifics other than to say some congestion has been sapping the energy of some players and that resulted in a few lineup changes.
Sniffles aside, Donald’s team could do no wrong. His big three of Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland rolled over their opponents, finding fairways and dropping long putts.
“They are studs,” said Donald. “They are three of the top four players in the world. You need your superstars firing. You need them playing well. Without that, it's really an uphill battle.”
There was nothing uphill about their day. It was more akin to being on a luge run the way they dismantled their opponents.
Rahm partnered with Tyrrell Hatton in the morning Foursomes to take down Burns and Scheffler 4 & 3, and came back in the afternoon with rookie Nicolai Hojgaard to scratch out a dramatic half point against Koepka and Scheffler, ramming an eagle putt off the back of the hole with the final shot.
“I've got to give Nicolai props because over here on 18,” gushed Rahm of the final putt. “He gave me the freedom to basically go at it, and he told me to hit a putt, try to make it. And he said, ‘What would Seve do?’, right, ‘do it for Seve.’ I don't know if [Seve] would have quite made it like that, but I'm sure glad that it went in.”
Hovland shepherded another first-timer, Ludvig Aberg, in the morning, rolling to a 4 & 3 win, and then joining Hatton in the afternoon Fourball to rally for a half-point against Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.
And then there was McIlroy, who paired with Tommy Fleetwood to defeat perhaps the toughest American duo in Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay 2 & 1 in the morning. In the afternoon, his partner, Matt Fitzpatrick did most of the heavy lifting, going six-under through the first six holes en route to another win.
“Six one-putts in a row is normally a big help,” Fitzpatrick joked.
When the smoke cleared and the Europeans went back to their hotel with a five-point lead, Johnson was left to try and figure out his next move, while still backing his team after the shell shock.
“I'm extremely proud of their fight and their character.,” he said of his 12 players. “I think when you have adversity and when you have challenge, you can kind of go one of two ways, and they decided to do it with class and character.”
He added a rallying cry for Saturday’s play, saying the boys would be giving it their all and that a comeback was still possible and it almost seemed believable. Almost.
For Johnson and the rest of the American brain trust, it may be more gut instinct than analytics in deciding who plays the next two matches. Thomas and Spieth, for instance, will lead off on Saturday morning in the Foursomes, despite having a style of play that makes one think they’ll be hitting out of the rough a lot. Cantlay and Schauffele will get another try in the cleanup spot.
Donald, on the other hand, will try not to mess with what appears to be a well-oiled machine. His lineup for Saturday morning is the same as it was for Friday morning. Wash, rinse, repeat.
No one knows exactly what the situation will be by Saturday evening, but by the time the next two sessions are over, we’ll know just who the genius is...and who will play the role of the bum.