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Americans stun Euros to take three-point lead on Day 1
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- All week, U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Paul Azinger has been peppered with question after agonizing question as to why the Americans have been shelled by the Europeans in five of the last six Ryder Cups.
Azinger simply shrugged it all off as nonsense, insisting that the past didn't matter -- this is a new year and a new team.
Need proof? How about a 5 ½ - 2 ½ lead for the Americans after Day One?
"Well, clearly we haven't led in a long time, so we're real happy about that," said Azinger, who managed to play all 12 of his men on Friday and whose six rookies helped account for 4 ½ of the 5 ½ points. "I was just real proud of everybody. It could have gone either way today. The guys, there were some nice comebacks today. They just played really well."
On paper, the 37th Ryder Cup at Valhalla Golf Club looked like the biggest mismatch since piranha versus chum, with Captain Nick Faldo's European squad playing the role of piranha.
What's on paper, however, doesn't matter. If it did, there's no way the Europeans would have been so dominant in recent years. That, as they say, is why they play the games.
And did the Americans ever play the games on Friday.
For the first time since 1991 at Kiawah Island, the Stars and Stripes actually won the morning matches. Before lunch, Azinger's team of engines that could mounted a 3-1 lead over the Europeans, thanks to two wins and two halves.
By the time the afternoon Fourball session was complete with three more U.S. wins, the Day One tally read U.S. 5 ½ -Europe 2 ½.
In the morning foursomes, Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim halved their match with Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson; Hunter Mahan and Justin Leonard had an impressive 3 and 2 win over Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey; Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell edged Justin Rose and Ian Poulter, 1 up; and Kenny Perry and Jim Furyk halved their match with Europe's dream-team of Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood.
The afternoon Fourball was much of the same for the Americans. Mickelson and Kim were paired together again and this time the pair took down Harrington and Graeme McDowell, 1 up; Rose and Poulter earned Europe its only win of the day with a 4 and 2 thumping of Steve Stricker and Ben Curtis; Leonard and Mahan dominated Garcia and Miguel Angel Jimenez on the way to a 4 and 3 victory; and in the anchor match, Boo Weekley and local boy J.B. Holmes halved with Westwood and Soren Hansen.
The Americans were loaded with "for the first time sinces" on Friday. For instance, the U.S. had the lead after Day 1 for the first time since 1995 at Oak Hill. For the first time since 1981 at Walton Heath Golf Club, the U.S. won both the morning and the afternoon session. And, for the first time since 1993 at The Belfry with Corey Pavin and Lanny Wadkins, a U.S. team -- Hunter Mahan and Justin Leonard this time around -- won both their matches on Day One. Finally, the three-point advantage for the Americans on opening day is their largest since 1979, when they led by the same margin at The Greenbrier in West Virginia.
Arguably the most exciting match of the morning session also happened to be the first.
As was the case early in all of the morning matches, the Europeans got off to a fast start, taking the lead after a birdie on the first hole. Then things got crazy on the back nine. Starting on the 10th hole, Harrington and Karlsson won three consecutive holes to build a 3-up advantage. Just as quickly, Mickelson and Kim went par, par, birdie on Nos. 13, 14 and 15 to square the match.
"I had such a good time," said Kim, after the two teams halved the match, both sides parring in from No. 16. "Even though we were behind most of the day, it was great to get out there and play, and obviously the support from the Americans was unbelievable, and hopefully we can give them something to cheer for."
As an encore, Mickelson and Kim collaborated on another 3-down comeback in the afternoon. This time around, their opponents were Harrington and European rookie McDowell. And, this time around, it wasn't just a halve, but a win.
Once again, the match came down to the final hole. Mickelson rolled home a 30-footer at No. 17 to go 1 up. With another birdie by Mickelson on No. 18, the U.S. walked off with a 2-up victory.
"It was a fun day for us," Mickelson said. "I thought being 3 down in both matches, we played with a lot of heart and emotion today to be able to pull the halve and win out... I love playing with this guy right here. Anthony has got this youthfulness to him and he has a lot of game and we had a lot of fun."
Leonard, who is playing in his first Ryder Cup since his stunning clinching-putt when the Americans last won in 1999, hasn't missed a beat. Both of his wins with the rookie Mahan were rather lopsided on Friday, even though the pair was 2 down after two holes in the morning session.
"He may be a Ryder Cup rookie but he's got a lot of experience," said Leonard of Mahan. "I think playing The Presidents Cup last year helped. You know, we played a lot of practice rounds together. We played together all week. We played very well together today."
Holmes and Weekley wowed the crowds as they fought back from a 2-down deficit. The pair had a 1-up edge after Weekley birdied No. 12 and held onto it until the final hole.
It looked like the American duo would win when 2 and 1 after Holmes stiffed his approach to within two feet on No. 17 and made an easy birdie, but Hansen answered with a birdie putt of his own from five feet to halve the hole.
Both Weekley and Holmes hit their tee shots on the par-5 18th into the water hazard that guards the right side, while Westwood and Hansen each hit ideal drives in the middle of the fairway.
Westwood was conceded birdie after he nestled an eagle putt close to the hole and the Europeans were able to salvage a half-point, meaning they'll start Saturday's play trailing by three points instead of four.
"We played good," Weekley said. "We brother in lawed it pretty good today, we really did. It's just tough. It's just a tough way to end the night knowing you've got to go home and sleep on this. But I think we are both ready for tomorrow and we are going to come back tomorrow and play the best that we could play again."
"That was a great, great last hour of golf, and to get a point or a half a point in the very last match was really great for the team morale, so obviously we are down in points but we are up in spirit," Faldo said.
For the first time in a long time, Saturday will be the day where the Europeans have their work cut out instead of the Americans.
And if the Europeans are to make a comeback in the morning on day two, they'll have to do it without two of their best. Garcia and Westwood, for the first time in the nine Ryder Cups between them, will be sitting out a session.
"I'm not going to justify why Nick Faldo does what he does," Azinger said, when asked what he thought about Garcia and Westwood being left out of Saturday's foursomes. "I'm sure he's confident in the guys he put out there, and the way I look at the teams they put out there, they look pretty strong to me. I'm not going to justify that. I'll let him answer that question."