Momentum comes in all sizes, and on Day 1 the U.S. held nearly all of it
KOHLER, Wis. – Match play is terrific because it gives us moments. Sometimes they arrive with the power of a foghorn, while at other times, the changing tides of match play trundle more gently into the shore.
Tony Finau had a powerhouse day on Friday at the 43rd Ryder Cup, as did his team, which sprinted out to a 6-2 advantage at Whistling Straits. Finau, one of his team’s bright lights in a lopsided loss in Paris three years ago, was amped to play after sitting out his team’s morning session, which went quite nicely (3-1 lead). When his afternoon Four-Ball match arrived alongside rookie Harris English, a man seeing his first Ryder Cup at the age of 32, Finau pounced on it like a hungry cat.
Finau, who recently turned 32 himself, would make six birdies as the U.S. tandem overpowered the Irish duo of Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, 4 and 3. Yet, when his day was in the books, it was a birdie that his partner contributed that Finau viewed as the spark to the result.
“I think momentum is huge in a team atmosphere like this, especially when you're playing match play,” said Finau, who improved his Ryder Cup record to 3-1. “I thought Harry (Harris) made a huge putt on 8 that gave us the lead. And we never looked back. I had a great look on 9 that I made, and another look on 10 (birdie from 15 feet), and we were just kind of on our way.”
McIlroy had made a 31-footer for eagle on the par-5 fifth to put Europe on top, 1 up, and the match was level as their players made their way to the eighth, a par-5 hole disguised this week as a long par 4 (it measures just under 500 yards). English ripped a drive, hit an approach from 160 yards to 8 feet, and buried the putt. The U.S. was on top. Finau would take it from there, stuffing one close for birdie at the par-4 ninth and tacking on another birdie at the short 10th. The U.S. suddenly was 3 up, and what had been a razor-close match was suddenly rolling toward a blowout. McIlroy already had lost in the morning, and never had dropped two matches in a day before until Friday. That’s a huge player for two relatively young (in experience) Ryder Cuppers to take down.
Bryson DeChambeau electrified the partisan Wisconsin crowd with his Sultan of Swat exhibition at the par-5 fifth hole. There are conventional ways to play the hole, as DeChambeau’s rookie partner did: Scottie Scheffler would drive it 305 yards down the left side, and rip a fairway metal from 274 yards just long of the green. DeChambeau? He took on the dogleg par 5 as the crows would fly it, busting one down the right side, a drive of (gulp!) 417 yards. No, this isn’t your grandfather’s golf. He had 72 yards to the green, feathered a beautiful wedge to 4 feet, and made his eagle. It tied a tight match, and the U.S. never would trail after that, though a Tyrrell Hatton birdie from 7 feet at the last earned Europe a hard-fought half point.
“That was probably the most excited he's ever been on a golf course, on No. 5,” Scheffler said afterward of his adrenaline-filled partner. “That wind, we had it on one of our practice days, and we figured out what he needed to do, so to have an opportunity to do that in competition was amazing. I was jacked up for him as well.
“I think he pushed it a little bit, but he smashed it. So thankfully he pushed it just a touch. If he pulls that ball at all, it's weird, there are two towers behind the green, I can't even describe to you -- yeah, they are like 250 or 200 yards right of where I'm trying to hit my drive, and it's crazy for him to be able to commit to that shot.
I know he's very happy to make a 3 as well; if he made a five, he said he was probably going to go home.”
It gave the U.S. a needed spark on a day when many players seemed to be providing them. Justin Thomas and Patrick Cantlay, in the last match of the day, were 3 down at one point, and Thomas, who’d lost in the morning with Jordan Spieth, seemed as if he might be headed toward his second setback of the day. But he and Cantlay never gave in. They were 1 down when Thomas stood over his second shot of 282 yards at the par-5 16th. He busted a 3-wood that settled 17 feet beyond the pin. When he rolled in the putt, Thomas thrilled the crowd with his animation. You could hear the roar all the way down Highway 43 to Fond du Lac.
Momentum. It was pretty much all on the U.S. side on Friday. Little things. Big things. It added up nicely for the U.S. team and their home-state captain, Steve Stricker. Not since 1975 at Pennsylvania’s Laurel Valley – when Stricker was in elementary school and the players on his team were not yet born – had a U.S. team led by such a large margin through the first day.
Yes, it was only one day, and Stricker emphasized that there were 20 points still out there the next two days. But holy momentum. For the home squad, as they headed off into the Wisconsin night, it was a day to be savored.