Stewart Cink liked the way the matches stood through the first two sessions. (Getty Images)
United States leads by two as night falls, but Europe threatens a big comeback
In what could prove to be a crucial two hours Saturday afternoon, Europe played itself right back into the Ryder Cup. But the U.S. still has the most points, and many of the on-course matches remain close.
NEWPORT, Wales (AP) -- The United States has the lead. Europe has the momentum.
Chalk it up to a wacky day like no other at the Ryder Cup.
Going from sunrise to sundown, 24 players managed to grind through an odd mix Saturday: finishing fourball matches, playing entire alternate-shot matches, then getting started on an odd session that included both kinds of matches.
When play was called because of darkness, the United States had a 6-4 lead. But Europe was ahead in all six matches that got started late in the afternoon, marked by blue on the scoreboard and giving the home team an undeniable surge of confidence going into another marathon Sunday.
"Momentum is the key in these matches," Captain Colin Montgomerie said.
In that case, advantage Europe.
Lee Westwood and Luke Donald were an astonishing 4 up through nine holes on Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker -- that after the Americans won their first two matches to remain unbeaten as partners in team events. Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy were 3 up through seven holes on Zach Johnson and Hunter Mahan, and had marked a short putt that gave the Europeans a chance to extend their advantage when play resumed.
The margins were smaller in the other four matches, but Europe was ahead in all of them.
"That was a very important two hours of play, and we came through it with flying colors," Montgomerie said. "We want to have six blue numbers shining on the board tomorrow morning, and we want them to stay there."
But, as the Americans were quick to point out, they're actually the guys with the most points. No one in the third session had played more than nine holes, and the margin in all the fourball matches was either one or two holes.
"It's very close," U.S. Captain Corey Pavin said. "The third session is going pretty nicely for Europe. We've just got to go back, rest up tonight and fire at 'em tomorrow."
There's still plenty of golf to be played -- and that doesn't even include the 12 singles matches that officials also hope to get in Sunday after cobbling a rain-plagued schedule in hopes of avoiding the first Monday finish in Ryder Cup history.
"I've never seen points given for matches where you've played four, five, six, seven holes," Pavin said. "We're going to try to come back and turn the momentum back in our favor."
Still, he wasn't sad to see the sun sink behind the Welsh hills and call it a day.
"Obviously the team wasn't off to a good start," Pavin said. "It wasn't a bad thing that it got dark."
As the Europeans already have shown, things can turn around quickly -- very quickly -- in match play.
The U.S. appeared to have all the momentum when Woods and Stricker won their second straight match in a rout, McIlroy hit two poor shots that gave a point to Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar, and the new pairing of Jim Furyk and 21-year-old Rickie Fowler stole a half-point from top-ranked European Lee Westwood and PGA Champion Martin Kaymer.
Montgomerie implored his players to make a strong start and get the crowd involved. They did just that: Donald and Westwood birdied the first two holes against Woods and Stricker; Kaymer and Ian Poulter won the first two holes against struggling Phil Mickelson and his new partner, Fowler; Peter Hanson and Miguel Angel Jimenez won their first hole; so did McDowell and McIlroy.
Cink and Kuchar were the only Americans to actually lead a match, making birdie at No. 1, but Italian brothers Francesco and Edoardo Molinari birdied the next two to erase that lone patch of U.S. red from the board. Padraig Harrington and Ross Fisher also were leading for the Europeans.
What a change from the American outlook just a couple of hours earlier, spurred by Woods winning his first two Ryder Cup matches for the first time ever.
He and Stricker came out on a chilly morning to finish off a 2-up win over Fisher and Poulter in fourballs. After a quick break, it was right back to the first tee for an alternate-shot match with Jimenez and Hanson that was no contest. With Woods hitting pinpoint irons and Stricker making all the putts, the Americans romped to a 4-and-3 win.
The Americans also got plenty of key shots out of their Georgia Tech pairing. Cink and Kuchar squandered a lead in fourballs but held on for a half-point against McIlroy and McDowell.
The teams faced off again in alternate shot, and McIlroy's game collapsed over the final two holes. First, the 21-year-old player missed a 6-foot putt after Cink had holed a 30-foot birdie. Then, with an easy wedge over the water at 18, McIlroy watched his ball slide off the green into a back bunker, ensuring the U.S. an outright win.
Woods and Stricker were the only players to earn maximum points over the first two rounds, a heartening development for an American team trying to successfully defend the Cup for the first time since 1993.
In a sport individual at its core, Woods has struggled to find a partner he could be comfortable with in this team setting. He's been paired with 11 other players in the Ryder Cup, including that ill-fated attempt at teaming with Mickelson in 2004, but all it produced was a 7-12-1 mark -- the major blemish on Woods' career record.
Then, at last year's Presidents Cup, Woods and Stricker were paired. They won all four of their matches, the first team in 30 years to do that in a major competition.
Woods had finally found his man.
"His stroke is so good," Woods said of his new BFF. "It's fun to watch him. He's got that 'go-in' look."
The world's top-ranked player was hoping to help the Americans keep the trophy they won without him at Valhalla two years ago, when he was recovering from knee surgery. Woods also hoped to take some of the sting out of a miserable year.
His marriage and reputation crumbled with the revelation of numerous affairs, and he returned from a five-month layoff without his usual dominance on the course. Woods went winless in the majors this year -- even failing to win a tournament of any kind -- and is in danger of losing his No. 1 ranking.
"We're comfortable around one another. Our games complement each other nicely," Stricker said. "He hit some unbelievable iron shots and, fortunately, I've been hitting some putts."
But nothing went right for the Americans in their third match of the day.
They took bogeys at the first and fourth holes, a double-bogey at the sixth, another bogey at the seventh and suddenly faced an astonishing five-hole deficit. They did provide a glimmer of hope with their first birdie, Stricker knocking in a putt at No. 9 just before play was called, but they've got a ton of work to do if they want to remain unbeaten as a team.
"That was a superb session from the moment we set off," Montgomerie said. "We started winning at the first hole."