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Fun leads to points for rollicking U.S. players
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- There was a time when Justin Leonard saw the Ryder Cup as something of a rite of passage.
He'd made two consecutive U.S. teams and while -- with the exception of one extremely memorable 45-foot putt -- the Texan hadn't played particularly well, he knew there would be more chances.
Leonard just didn't know he'd have to wait nearly a decade to play in his next Ryder Cup. So now that he's finally back on Team USA, he wants to savor everything about this special week at Valhalla Golf Club.
Well, it's hard to imagine Leonard having more fun than he did on Friday as he teamed with Hunter Mahan to win both their matches as the Americans took a decisive 5 1/2 - 2 1/2 advantage in the biennial competition.
The two Dallas residents led 26 of 31 holes as they beat Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey 3 up in foursomes and Sergio Garcia and Miguel Angel Jimenez 4 up in the afternoon four-ball.
Leonard said he appreciates the chance to play in a Ryder Cup more now than he did when he was younger. And it could be argued that his teammates -- six of whom are rookies getting their first opportunity -- are following suit.
"After I made a couple teams in a row, I kind of thought, well, the Ryder Cup will be my deal for a while," Leonard explained. "Well, it hasn't been. So I probably didn't, I certainly didn't, know how much I missed it until getting back here this week and playing today."
Not since 1979 has the U.S. won both the foursomes and four-balls sessions on the opening day. And it could have been even more decisive had it not been for three water-logged tee shots at the 18th hole that turned 1-up American advantages into halves.
"My cheeks are sore from smiling all day," said Leonard, who hadn't won a match in two previous Ryder Cups.
Team USA trailed early in seven of the eight matches, but rallied to win four, halve three and lose just one. The Americans haven't led at the end of the first day since the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hills, where they owned a 5-3 advantage.
"Well, clearly we haven't led in a long time, so we're real happy about that," U.S. Captain Paul Azinger said. "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.
"Everybody kind of stayed on point, stayed in the present, and just kept going."
A re-energized Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim contributed 1 1/2 points while Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell won the other U.S. match. The teams of Kenny Perry and Jim Furyk and rookies Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes produced a half-point each.
Small wonder, then, that Azinger elected to keep the same teams for Saturday morning's foursomes.
"We are going to be pretty tough to beat," Kim said. "We are having a great time out there and when you're having a great time, you're going to play good golf. We are looking forward to the next couple of matches."
Kim and Mickelson proved particularly resilient, rallying from deficits of 3-down in each match. Mickelson -- who equaled his combined point total from the last two Ryder Cups on Friday -- fed off the enthusiasm of his younger partner while Kim was steadied by the lefty's solid play.
"His youthfulness, his excitement, exuberance is infectious, and I was very fortunate to be able to spend the day with (him)," said Mickelson, who made seven birdies in the afternoon four-balls. "We had a lot of fun playing together."
So did Weekley and Holmes. It wasn't quite the pairing the Kentucky crowd had hoped for, but it was the next best thing. And the two didn't disappoint -- exhorting the crowd, as much as each other, in the final match of the day.
"We had a good time with the fans today," said Weekley, who waved his arms and tried to elicit cheers from the team's 13th men with every putt the duo made.
Lee Westwood, who was playing with Soren Hansen, appeared a bit peeved by the partisan performance. His objection, though, was to the celebrations that came while one of the Europeans still had a shot to make.
"It certainly gave me more of a burning desire to win some holes," Westwood said.
He'll have to wait until Saturday afternoon, though. In a stunning move, European Captain Nick Faldo elected to sit Westwood and Sergio Garcia for the first time in their Ryder Cup careers.
Azinger was only worried about his team, though. And he likes the way they're playing as Team USA tries to win the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1999, when Leonard made that clinching putt.
"These guys are going to embrace this crowd, they're going to embrace the energy and they're going to embrace the pressure," Azinger said. "That's the whole message. I'm real proud of them. They did a great job today.
"But I'll reiterate that I'm sure the European team is going to come out freewheeling with everything to gain tomorrow. We've got to be ready. We've got to do it again."