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In Ali's hometown, Team USA proving quite the contender
Dave Shedloski, PGATOUR.COM Senior Correspondent
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Team Europe came out swinging Saturday at Valhalla Golf Club. The visitors and frequent vanquishers of Team USA, determined to reverse a Friday deficit, landed jabs, hooks, uppercuts and body blows with noted ferocity.
Still, they simply couldn't knock down the Americans.
Paul Azinger's U.S. squad managed to stand up to Europe's relentless assault, dodging, weaving, and landing a few punches of its own. That enabled them to enter the final day of the 37th Ryder Cup with a hard-earned 9-7 advantage and ever-growing confidence entering Sunday's singles matches.
"I just couldn't be happier with the effort we've given all week," Azinger said Saturday night after Europe shaved only a point off America's first-day advantage. "We're in a good place right now. We're in a good place mentally. But we know we have a long way to go."
|Sunday's Singles Matches|
Not as long as many anticipated. The Americans had lost the last two meetings by nine points each and five of the last six. With six rookies on the squad, they were decided underdogs on their own soil for the first time in history.
But it is no small consideration that they remain in front.
Only six times in the previous 36 ties has the team that trailed heading into the final day been able to win the Ryder Cup. The last three all occurred in the 1990s -- in 1999, '95 and '93, with Europe claiming the middle of those after trailing at Oak Hill, by the same 9-7 count. That was the last time America led after team competition.
Only Phil Mickelson was on that team. It truly is a different team, as Azinger and others have insisted all week.
The Europeans stomped out Saturday morning intent on eradicating U.S. momentum, and when it won 2 1/2 points in foursomes, American legs looked wobbly. Among the big blows for Europe was a stunning 2-and-1 victory by Henrik Stenson and rookie Oliver Wilson over the hot new duo of Mickelson and Anthony Kim after the Yanks led 4 up through six holes.
Then came the real barrage in fourball. Europe pelted the home team with 28 birdies. Robert Karlsson converted seven and Ian Poulter six with Graeme McDowell adding three more for his English teammate. They needed every one of them to subdue Kenny Perry and Jim Furyk 1 up. Karlsson and Stenson could do no better than a half against Mickelson and Hunter Mahan.
Nor could Paul Casey and a rested Sergio Garcia shake Ben Curtis and Steve Stricker as they halved.
When the final bell had rung, America had countered with 25 birdies and two eagles and held the line.
"Yeah, we took some blows today," Azinger allowed. "They (the Europeans) played great, and we only lost one point today. We're happy about that. You could just tell by the pairings it was going to be this kind of day. It was another rollercoaster, just like yesterday.
"I think our gamers gamed up today."
In Saturday's aftermath, the Americans seemed relaxed. Boo Weekley, a winner with J.B. Holmes in fourball, dismissed the notion that the Yanks had lost any momentum.
"It's how you feel, I reckon," he said. "I don't feel it. Do y'all feel it?"
He turned to teammates seated beside him in the interview room. They didn't seem diminished in psyche or stature. They still have nowhere to go but up in their minds.
"No, we started as underdogs at the beginning of the week," Holmes said. "We're still underdogs heading into (singles), so we're playing well and we've just got to go out there and do the best we can."
European captain Nick Faldo couldn't have been disappointed in the way his team performed. Amazing was a word he offered frequently to describe their play. And he agreed with a questioner about whether America was now hearing Euro footsteps.
"Oh, most definitely," Faldo avered. "It was America's day Friday. It was our day today. We clawed in there, hung in there. That was the goal: to chip at the lead they had."
There was chipping, but no breaking. And now it is the Americans, surviving the onslaught, still standing, with their best player sitting at home in Florida, thrusting out jaws that are no longer like glass.
"It's a better feeling, sure, being in front, but believe me, we aren't in any position to think about celebrating," veteran Jim Furyk said. "I think we all agree that we need to go out and play like we don't have the lead. Go out and try to win it. I can't say who will win, but I can tell you we will give it everything we have."
What can't be ignored in looking ahead is how unbalanced the results of singles matches have been of late, so the home team resides in dangerous territory still.
The margin of victory for the team that wins the final day's matches has been three points or more in the last seven meetings. You have to go back to 1991 at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., for a close singles face-off, when America won 6 1/2 to 5 1/2 to reclaim the Cup. The 1977 edition was the last time singles ended in a tie -- and Europe hadn't been invited yet.
Thinking that his charges will wear down the Americans, Faldo is sending Garcia out first -- while Azinger counters with Kim -- but he is saving Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington for the final two matches against Ben Curtis and Chad Campbell, respectively.
Curtis Strange kept Mickelson and Tiger Woods in the bullpen in similar fashion in 2002 and watched their matches become meaningless as Europe raced to victory.
It could happen again with the Americans this time sprinting to the finish. His first four men on the course are Kim, Hunter Mahan, Justin Leonard and Mickelson, and then he mixes Kentucky boys Perry and Holmes around Weekley to bring emotional reinforcements to the theater.
"The first four guys are aggressive personalities. They're the guys I wanted to go first," Azinger explained.
It is a strategy that he planned all along, but, then, Azinger has been a man of action since he took over the American post. The results, so far, speak for themselves.
"Tomorrow is a big day. There's a lot at stake," he said. "We have to go out and enjoy the experience and embrace the stage. You look at their team and it's loaded, but, yet we're ahead by two. Let me just say this: the system is working. We got the hottest eight guys, we got four captain's picks who have all contributed. We have one more day to prove ourselves."