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The play of the Ben Curtis-Steve Stricker duo was a pleasant surprise to many on Saturday. (Lyons/Getty Images)

Team USA thrilled and relieved after emotional Saturday

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Paul Azinger's plucky American underdogs traded big shots with Europe's best for 12 long hours on an amazing Saturday that grew more intense with each hole. As great as they feel, they know there's one more big day to go.

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Ben Curtis knew there were probably some groans when U.S. fans saw that he and Steve Stricker were playing Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey in four-balls on Saturday afternoon.

After all, they had gotten thumped 4 & 2 on Friday. And he hadn't even made a birdie, for goodness sakes.

The two Americans hung tough, though -- halving 16 of 18 holes and walking away with an important half point on a gut-check of an afternoon that saw Team USA emerge with a two-point lead to take into Sunday's all-important singles at Valhalla.

Stricker assured the U.S. of a halve when he rolled in a 15-footer for birdie on the 18th hole with Europe's Mr. Ryder Cup, Sergio Garcia, staring at a 7-footer of his own. The next two matches on this roller-coaster afternoon also reached the 18th hole with Europe winning one and the two teams halving the finale.

"When the pairings came out, I think 99 percent of the people would agree that they didn't expect us to go out there and win, especially the way we played yesterday," the good-natured Curtis acknowledged. "But Steve played good. ... The difference today is we put a lot of pressure on them and we made a few putts."

There actually were so many clutch putts made Saturday afternoon, it was hard to keep track of them all. Consider this: Jim Furyk made six birdies -- and not a single one of them let him win a hole as he and Kenny Perry took Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell to the 18th before losing, 1 down.

Phil Mickelson made an eagle and four birdies as he and Hunter Mahan halved their match with Henrik Stenson and the red-hot Robert Karlsson, who made six birdies in a seven-hole stretch. Karlsson's clutch putter took the Europeans from 2 down to even with five holes remaining.

That match came down to a pair of eagle putts from Mahan and Karlsson at the final hole. The American's 15-footer slid just left of the hole, while Karlsson, who only had 10 feet, sent his 4 feet by and was forced to make the putt coming back to get the halve.

"It was a very emotional and up-and-down day," Mickelson said. "Hunter and I played some good golf, and we were able to withstand Robert Karlsson. He just played some great golf, and we were fortunate that we made enough birdies to halve the match."

Had the Europeans eked out a win in the finale, Team USA's lead would have been one point. Now the Americans will take a 9-7 advantage into the singles -- which Europe has won handily at four of the last six Ryder Cups.

"I'm drained," Stricker said. "That was so much fun. We weren't supposed to win that match going against Sergio and Paul (Casey), but we hung in there and did ourselves good."

The only Americans who had any semblance of a comfort zone on Saturday afternoon were Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes. The redneck rookies -- and we say that in the nicest possible way -- never trailed in their match with Lee Westwood and Soren Hansen on the way to a hard-fought 2-and-1 win.

"I just think that our gamers gamed up today," U.S. Captain Paul Azinger said. "We could have lost 3 to 1 in the afternoon, we could have won 3 to 1 this afternoon. But Stricker's putt was amazing, and J.B. and Boo coming through the way they did against that team I thought was incredible.

"I just couldn't be happier with the effort that the players are giving so far this week."

Stricker's match was a microcosm of the entire afternoon. The emotions were high throughout -- Garcia pumped both fists and screamed as a long birdie putt fell at the eighth hole, and Stricker, a man not normally known for such outbursts, responded in kind with a dramatic fist pump to fire up the crowd.

"This week has been way beyond my expectations as far as atmosphere and the crowds, the emotion of it all, and I am not that type of player that you saw out there, I guarantee," Stricker said. "But it comes out. You know, in competition like this, it truly does come out.

"We both had the same putt there, and I'm telling Ben, 'we're going to top him, we're going to put it right on top of him and we're going to go on and keep applying the pressure.' Sure enough, I was able to make it. If I didn't make it, I'm sure Ben was going to make it."

Curtis, though, joked that he was ready to kiss Stricker when he made that putt after one of Europe's pre-eminent Ryder Cup players had downed his.

"That putt was probably the match for us," Curtis said. "Sergio made a great putt from 40 feet or so, and he was getting up pumped up and excited; and for us to make it right on top of him obviously probably took a little bit out of him."

The fans certainly supported its new favorite son, Weekley, too, chanting "Boo-S-A, Boo-S-A" as he led Holmes, the big-hitting Kentucky native, to victory. The adrenaline rush was palpable and the fans, 10-deep around the fairway and green of every match, reacted in kind.

"I feel like a dog that somebody done stuck a needle to and it juiced me up like I've been running around a Greyhound track chasing one of them bunnies," said the Floridian said in his own inimitable way.

The punch-counterpunch progression of Saturday's four-balls had both teams claiming the momentum. As the day progressed, Tiger Woods, watching on TV at home in Orlando as he continues to rehabilitate his left knee, was sending text messages to Azinger, Stricker and even NBA great Michael Jordan, who was in the gallery.

The Americans may be leading, but they are not ready to relinquish the underdog role they have thrived on this week. Europe has won the last three Ryder Cups, and five of the last six.

"We come in here without the best player and Europe comes in with just this unbelievable team," Azinger said. "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 have done great.

"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 the position we're in, but there's a long, long way to go, and we know that."

The way Curtis sees it, Team USA has nothing to lose.

"I think everybody is still expecting Europe to win, and we're just going to go out there and give it our all, and hopefully the crowd will stay behind us," the rookie said. "To be two points ahead going into Sunday, I think that's a good feeling."