On a cool day at Whistling Straits, the U.S. team used hot putters to push out to a strong 6-2 lead on the opening day of the Ryder Cup.
It’s the first time since Great Britain and Ireland was expanded to include all of Europe as the opposition that the Americans have held a four-point lead after the opening day.
And in truth, it might have been bigger if not for a few late half-points earned by the Europeans that were celebrated as if they were full points.
“You're always thinking it can change momentum and change direction rather quickly,” said U.S. captain Steve Stricker of the dream start. “You're just taking literally one match at a time and hoping and wishing that these guys continue to play well. Fortunately our guys had a good day today and we're looking forward to tomorrow.”
European captain Padraig Harrington was more succinct in his appraisal of the opening day.
“No doubt it was a tough day,” he said. “Clearly not what you wanted, 6-2.”
The U.S. started the opening session winning three of four matches in foursomes play, an unusual performance for a side that has not played that format well in the past. In the 2019 Ryder Cup, the Americans went 2-6-0 in alternate shot play but this time, they rolled in putts from 10, 15 and 20 feet as if they were tap-ins and ran roughshod over the Europeans. Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa defeated Paul Casey and Viktor Hovland 3 and 2 while Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger were victorious over Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick 2 and 1.
The most surprising match was a 5 and 3 win by Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele over Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter.
The two American first-timers jumped from the first tee winning the opening five holes and then cruised the rest of the way.
It was the same in the afternoon fourball session with the Americans winning two matches and splitting the other two. They rolled in 11 putts more than 15 feet in length during the session and made 18 birdies.
The U.S. side got production from almost every corner. The six rookies on the team were in on all six points. And the oldest player on the team, 37-year-old Johnson, looked like the 2020 version of himself, rolling in a big bag of long putts and hitting iron shots close when he needed to. He won both his matches, the second one with Schauffele, who was also a two-point winner on the day.
“Conditions were tough. We both ham-and-egged it very well, and we played a really good match,” Johnson said of he and Schauffele’s combined work.
The lone bright spot for Harrington’s side came from Jon Rahm, who played like his world No. 1 ranking. In the morning session, Rahm joined countryman Segio Garcia for a 3 and 1 victory against Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, and paired with Tyrrell Hatton in the afternoon to tie Bryson DeChambeau and Scottie Scheffler.
“It feels good to get the half point,” Rahm said after Hatton birdied the 18th hole to bring the match even. Things like that can turn the tide.”
If Rahm was the best player, McIlroy may have been at the opposite end. After losing in the morning, he and Shane Lowry dropped a 4 and 3 match against Harris English and Tony Finau. It marked the first time McIlroy has lost two matches in the same day at a Ryder Cup.
His play seemed to lack any consistency. While he did make some good shots, too often he was missing the green with his approaches and not even scaring the hole with his putts. Add to that his opponents in both matches played exceptionally well and it added up to a dismal day.
“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,” said McIlroy, “if you're not quite a hundred per cent on top of your game, it's tough.”
His play was poor enough that Harrington elected to sit him for Saturday morning’s foursomes session. It’s just the second time in his Ryder Cup career that McIlroy has sat out.
“We’ve got 20 points to play for, and we've got to prepare ourselves for, hopefully for us at this stage a long battle all the way through,” said Harrington, trying to stay optimistic. “If we are going to get this done, it's going to be a very tight one.”
“It's a great start,” said Stricker. “We are very happy with the start. But my message to the guys before I left is tomorrow is a new day. You know, let's just go out tomorrow and try to win that first session again in the morning and pretend today never happened, and let's keep our foot down and continue to play the golf that we know we can play.”