Jeff Overton (right) birdied several holes in the middle of his round to give himself and partner Bubba Watson a huge opening victory. (Getty Images)

Anchor-match win earns rookies respect, gives U.S. crucial lead after first session

Colin Montgomerie was vocal in his surprise that U.S. first-timers Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton would go out last in the fourballs. Instead, says Steve Eubanks, they got the last laugh.

By Steve Eubanks, Special to

NEWPORT, Wales -- The first rule of coaching is to never say anything that’s going to end up on the opponent’s locker-room wall.  No one told Colin Montgomerie. Not long after the announcement that Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton would anchor the U.S. team in the opening fourball matches, Monty said, “Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington would not expect to play two rookies in the last game. They wouldn’t have expected that last game, which is an important game, say we are 2-1 down to back to 2 all or 2-1 up to get to 3-1. I did not expect Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington to be playing two rookies in the last match. I don’t think you guys did, either.” 

The rookies, Jeff Overton and Bubba Watson, took umbrage to that. They played like they had been disrespected and had something to prove.

Not only did the Ryder Cup rookies win their opening match, they were the only American team to lead from start to finish. Theirs’ was also the only match that was never close. If Monty didn’t expect Harrington and Donald to be playing Overton and Watson, the captain certainly didn’t expect the outcome. Watson and Overton won the final match of the first session 3 up. 

Overton, the least-known player from either side, and the only player without a PGA Tour victory to qualify for the U.S. team, set a standard for the week, getting the Americans on the board early with a birdie at the first, and then rattling off four straight birdies from the ninth through the 12th.  He added another with a tap-in birdie at the short 15th after his eagle slid inches by. 

Watson had one birdie at the second to put the Americans 2 up before the Friday rain delay. Then Overton sealed the deal with a two-putt par at the 16th to secure America’s first full point of the Ryder Cup. And the Europeans were left muttering that old line from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:” “Who are those guys?”

“We enjoy playing golf,” Watson said. “And the two guys we played are great competitors and some of the best players in the world. We just had a great time playing golf.”   

“It was a pairing I thought was going to work,” Corey Pavin said. “All of these are discussions with assistant captains as well. That was one of their suggestions, and I thought it was a good one. I thought about it before, but these guys were itching to go. They are both energetic individuals and I just thought that they would have a fun time together and enjoy being out there and feed off each other.” 

They certainly did that in the first session, and Pavin, obviously liked what he saw. He put Overton and Watson together again for Saturday’s mid-morning foursomes. 

Europe got on the board first when Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer beat Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson 3 up. That was one Europe led from the second hole forward. Johnson only made one birdie at the par-3 seventh and he was out of the hole more often than he finished in the closing sessions.

Europe then escaped with a half point when Rory McIlroy drained a 40-footer on the par-3 17th to square things against Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar. Both teams made par on the par-5 18th after Cink and McIlroy hit their second shots in the water fronting the green.

Harkening to the goofy-golf days of the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama, where a lip-out putt at the 17th could gain speed and end up in the water, the shaved bank and water in front of the final green at Celtic Manor gobbled three balls from the first group to reach it (two from Cink and one from McIlroy). McDowell’s approach was also an inch away from spinning off the front and into the drink. Unless the collar is softened, a lucky break at the 18th could prove pivotal in the end. 

McDowell and Kuchar two-putted for par for the first halve of the matches, one in which the Europeans knew they had dodged a bullet. “We are happy to steal a half point, really, because we looked to be in trouble,” McDowell said. 

Stewart Cink took a different take, however. “We have to take a positive out of it,” Cink said. “Playing against those two guys, two of the pillars on their team, we feel good about coming out with a halve even though we had a lead early.” 

Steve Stricker carried Tiger Woods in the last match to finish. Five birdies from Stricker kept the Americans in the lead from the 12th forward. When Ross Fisher and Ian Poulter missed birdie putts at the last, they conceded Stricker’s short birdie and the U.S. won 2 up.

The final morning score of 2½ to 1½ was a great start for the Americans given that they historically have a losing record in the fourball sessions. It also bodes well for Team USA’s chances. The winner of the opening session has won all but two of the last 17 Ryder Cup contests. 

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