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Rookie enthusiasm fires up Americans, maintains U.S. lead
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Experience has got to be overrated. That's the only way to explain what went on at Valhalla Golf Club Saturday at the 37th Ryder Cup, where the rookies ruled.
Between the U.S. and Europe, the 10 rookies that teed it up in the foursomes and Fourball sessions on Saturday helped account for 4 ½ of the eight points up for grabs.
Europe, as a whole, narrowed the three-point deficit it started the day with down to a crucial two points, which means the Americans will take a 9-7 lead into Sunday's singles matches. It's just the second time in 13 years that the U.S. will begin the final day of a Ryder Cup with the lead. The other was at Oak Hill in 1995. The U.S. led 9-7, just like here at Valhalla, but came out on the losing end.
"We took some blows today," U.S. captain Paul Azinger said. "They played great, and we only lost one point today. We're happy about that. You could just tell by the pairings that it was going to be this kind of day. I felt like the afternoon, another roller coaster just like yesterday. The afternoon we could have lost 3 to 1, we could have won 3 to 1. Anything could have happened."
"We won't be thinking of history or the past," European captain Nick Faldo said. "Tomorrow is the only moment we've got, so that's what the guys have been living for and that's why they want to be here. And that's what we'll be playing for tomorrow."
Now let's get back to those rookies.
For the Europeans, little-known Englishman Oliver Wilson became a whole lot more famous after his play in the morning Foursome session.
Wilson teamed up with Henrik Stenson to face seemingly overwhelming favorites in Phil Mickelson and rookie Anthony Kim.
It looked like it would be ugly early for Stenson and Wilson -- the only European who didn't tee it up on Friday -- as Mickelson and Kim jumped out to a 4-up lead through just six holes. The match was so lopsided that, at one point, a European commentator suggested that Wilson and Stenson were, "lambs to the slaughter."
It's a good thing the European players didn't think that way.
A rally, coupled with erratic play by Mickelson and Kim, helped Wilson and Stenson to what could arguably be the most unlikely 2 and 1 win in Ryder Cup history.
"I've just been itching to play," said Wilson, who put his stamp on these matches when he holed a 25-footer for birdie at No. 17 that eventually closed the match. "Obviously excited to get out there this morning. I felt like me and Henrik were a good pairing. We spoke about it yesterday, so I was ecstatic to get out there. We didn't get off to the best of starts, but it was a lot of fun. The first tee shot was a lot of fun. And just got off to a bad start, kept pegging away, and fortunately managed to get ourselves back in the match and finish nicely."
In other morning Foursomes, Ian Poulter went off with rookie Justin Rose and the pair of Englishmen earned an impressive 4 and 3 victory against Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell. Justin Leonard and rookie Hunter Mahan halved their match against Miguel Angel Jimenez and rookie Graeme McDowell, while Kenny Perry and Jim Furyk picked up the only Foursomes win for the Americans on Saturday, defeating Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson, 3 and 1.
At the lunch break, the tally read: U.S. 7, Europe 5.
That was shortly before two U.S. rookies teed off and turned Valhalla into a raging party.
For the second day in a row, Kentucky's own J.B. Holmes partnered up with everyone's favorite good ole boy Boo Weekley in the afternoon fourball against European stalwart Lee Westwood and Swedish rookie Søren Hansen.
The two sides halved their match on Friday, which Weekley and Holmes let slip away on the final hole. That wouldn't be the case the second time around.
With masses of people lining the fairways and surrounding the tee boxes and greens, Weekley in particular rose to the occasion and never let up. That was never more evident than on the 15th hole, a short par 4.
Weekley drove his ball into a fairway bunker on the right. With 153 yards to go, Weekley delivered an incredible shot, knocking it to within two feet to make a birdie that would eventually be good for a halve and allowed the Americans to maintain a 2-up advantage.
So where does Boo reckon that bunker shot ranks among his career best?
"I'd have to say No. 9 because I've had eight holes in one," he said.
And who could argue with that?
There was some bad blood developing between Westwood and Weekley on Friday. Westwood didn't appreciate how Weekley was whooping up the crowd before the Europeans played their shots. On Saturday, Weekley was more reserved. While the crowd was still going bonkers, it wasn't due to his enticement, which wasn't lost on Westwood.
"He didn't do it between shots like he did yesterday, so he's obviously learned," Westwood said. "He apologized last night, which is the kind of man he is. He's a nice guy. We get on really well."
Aside from the Weekley/Holmes win that came on the 17th hole, the rest of the afternoon Fourball matches came right down to No. 18.
Steve Stricker and Ben Curtis -- two more rookies -- squeaked out a vital halve over the European powerhouse tandem of Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey. And it was far from easy.
Stricker, one of Azinger's four Captain's Picks, delivered big time, with an incredible up-and-down for birdie at the last to put the pressure on the Europeans to secure a half point.
|Sunday's Singles Matches|
Following a second shot that sailed well right of the green and into some hairy rough, Stricker had an awkward stance on the side of a hill, but managed to advance the ball onto the green about 15 feet from the hole.
From there, he deftly rolled the ball into the center of the cup for birdie, sending the fans and his teammates gathered at No. 18 into a tizzy.
Moments later, Casey answered by holing a short birdie putt for the halve, but it did nothing to dampen the heroics of Stricker.
"I'm drained," Stricker said. "That was so much fun. We weren't supposed to win that match going against Sergio and Paul, but we hung in there and did ourselves good."
In the next-to-last match of the afternoon, Poulter and McDowell defeated Perry and Furyk, 1 up. McDowell was outstanding throughout the day and Poulter chipped in with some crucial points at the end, highlighted by a short birdie putt on No. 18 that locked up a full point.
"That was a pretty special moment," Poulter said. "What a day, to go out with G-Mac this afternoon and just play, he played awesome. He holed some awesome putts at the right time. I was struggling out there at times, but I managed to hang in there and come up with a couple decent birdies right in the last two."
The riveting final 45 minutes of Saturday's play was capped off by the Mickelson/Mahan vs. Stenson/Karlsson match that also came down to the final hole -- the ninth of 16 matches in this 37th Ryder Cup to close out on No. 18.
Mickelson and Mahan were 2 up through 11 holes until Karlsson decided to go crazy. With six birdies over a seven-hole stretch beginning at No. 10, Karlsson single-handedly kept the Europeans in the match and squared it up.
Karlsson and Mahan traded birdies on No. 18 for the eventual halve.
"He was good. He's a darned good player," Mahan said of Karlsson. "I haven't seen much of him, but he's really good. It was a great match."
The Americans need to gain 5 ½ points in the singles matches on Sunday to win the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1999, while the Europeans will need seven points to retain and win for the sixth time in seven tries.
"We were clearly underdogs," Azinger said. "The greatest player in the world is sitting at home watching and text messaging me and Stricker and everybody else he can find. So we come in here without the best player and Europe comes in here with this just unbelievable team. And for us to be two points ahead, I think is really good.
"The crowd has been a big part of it, but these guys are all gamers, and they've done great," he added. "We'll just try to keep them on point tomorrow and embrace the crowd and just love where they are. They're in a good place right now mentally, we're happy to be in a position we're in, but there's a long, long way to go, and we know that."