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Valhalla Golf Club
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U.S. Captain Paul Azinger, who spent part of Friday with former president George H.W. Bush, was extremely pleased with how his players responded to adversity. (Pritchard/PGA of America)

Day 1 dawns with doubts, ends in�smiles all around

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Team USA's script started out like the same-old same-old on Friday, but a never-say-die group of players turned what could've been an American tragedy into a feel-good story -- and a three-point lead heading into Saturday.

By Dave Shedloski, PGATOUR.COM Senior Correspondent

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- More than a few times throughout the opening day of the 37th Ryder Cup, Paul Azinger had to quell the dyspeptic feeling in his gut, the one that was churning up inside him and playing with his mind, telling him, almost insidiously, "here we go again."

The U.S. captain kept watching his charges fall behind, just like they have on so many other occasions in recent Ryder Cups, the ones that have ended five out of the last six times with Europe hoisting Samuel Ryder's prized trophy on Sunday night.

Oh, yes, this was the same European formula that had bedeviled the Americans: Jump up early, ride momentum, break their spirit and then sing campfire songs while the U.S. contingent licked its collective wounds, scratched scalps and tried to explain how it keeps wilting in the biennial spotlight.

"I definitely thought a couple of times, 'Gosh, we're behind. What are we going to do?" Azinger, the game and garrulous U.S. leader, admitted Friday night. "But that didn't last very long. It would just sort of get me a time or two, and then I just figured that I've pointed the guys in the right direction. They're focused. They're prepared. And we're a different team. We'll be all right."

The Americans were more than all right. They were exceptional and they were resilient, and they ended the first day at Valhalla Golf Club with a 5 � to 2 � lead over the favored Europeans -- the first time the Yanks have led after Day One since 1995 at Oak Hill.

"It's great for us to get off to a good start, and it's also great for us because it gets the crowd involved and excited and it gives us energy; we feed off of that," said Phil Mickelson, who seemed rejuvenated and played brilliantly beside rookie Anthony Kim, who mixed excitability with excellence. "When we were down, when some of these matches were down, we were able to hang in there and we fought hard, and we were able to come back."

The remarkable components in constructing such an advantage was how the Americans so often had to dig themselves out of the basement. Europe held a lead in seven out of the eight matches, including all four of the morning foursomes contests. In six of eight, the Euros were first to strike. And they led for more holes overall, 55 to 49.

Mickelson and Kim had to the most shoveling to do. In their morning foursome match against Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson, the Yanks trailed by three with six to play, won three in a row, and then ran out the string for a half-point. They found themselves three down after four to Harrington and Graeme McDowell, but scratched back to eventually capture a 2-up decision.

They trailed for an amazing 20 of the 36 holes they played. They led for only three holes. And, yet, only Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan, who won twice, could claim to have enjoyed a better day.

"They've got chemistry going," said Azinger, who is marching them out in foursomes again Saturday morning in the third match at 8:35 EDT against Henrik Stenson and Oliver Wilson. "But, you know, it wasn't like they were winning 6 and 5. It was really hard work for them. A whisker on one side or the other and this whole thing could be flip-flopped.

"But I'm so proud of how they responded, how all the guys, when they got behind, they somehow pulled it together," Azinger added. "There was no magic button that I pushed. We just did it. And we have to do it again the rest of the week. This is a long way from over."

Indeed, that '95 team eventually got out-leaned at the tape in singles, losing by a single point. This could all be reversed in quick order. But for one day the American side could at least revel in winning a round that could have been even better had it not surrendered the 18th hole twice to allow Europe to eke out halves.

The Europeans, for their part, seemed bemused to have the soft-spikes on the other foot.

"It's a novelty," said England's Lee Westwood, who had never gone to bed on Friday night trailing in his five previous Ryder Cup turns for Europe dating back to 1997. "It's not the position you want to be in."

Interestingly, if Europe is going to make inroads toward another victory, it will be doing so Saturday morning without Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey, arguably three of the four best players (along with Harrington, the reigning British Open and PGA champion) -- in the foursomes lineup. European Captain Nick Faldo said he was looking for "fresh legs" for the alternate-shot format.

Hard to believe that Garcia, just 29, would be winded, but perhaps El Nino needed to regroup after managing just a half-point in his two matches on Friday and losing for just the second time in team competition.

Anyone who has witnessed recent Ryder Cups would agree that the events of the first day did not stick to the usual script. Nevertheless, that didn't surprise Faldo in the least.

"The guys here are keen, and both sides are here to win," Faldo said. "That is part of the Ryder Cup is that determination; that when you're down, you never give in. You just play as hard as you can until you run out of holes, simple as that. And America did a great job today, and I'm sure my team will rally tomorrow."