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Tommy Fleetwood, Francesco Molinari spoiled Tiger Woods' Ryder Cup return with clutch back nine

PARIS — First morning, first Ryder Cup match of his life, and Englishman Tommy Fleetwood was not only playing with Francesco Molinari, one of his very best mates, but he was playing against Tiger Woods and Captain America, Patrick Reed. 

So you can imagine the emotions churning through him after he had just put Europe 1-up in the four-balls anchor match with a birdie at the 15th — eliciting a huge roar at the amphitheater between the 15th and 18th greens. Even better as he stood on the par-3 16 tee, figuring out what club to hit, when a voice pierced the quiet: “Nice putt, Tommy.” It was Woods.

Fleetwood added another birdie from the collar at the par-3 16th and Molinari birdied 17 for good measure after both U.S. players came up short of the green at the straight and long par-4. Europe would defeat Woods and Reed, 3 and 1, to keep from a whitewash in the morning session after the U.S. captured the morning’s first three matches. 

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Fleetwood, 27, one of five rookies on Team Europe, said the whole experience was amazing. What did he think about playing against and beating Woods, an 80-time PGA Tour champion and 14-time major winner?

“That’s something to tell my kids about in the future,” Fleetwood said. “There is nothing like it. And that’s just my first morning experience — (some) guys have done this 10 times. There is nothing like it, and I can’t wait to get out and do it again.”

WATCH BELOW: Highights from Woods/Reed vs. Molinari/Fleetwood

 

He and Molinari went right back out in the afternoon session. 

Woods and Reed, a player with whom he has worked closely on U.S. teams the last two autumns, were paired for the first time. Neither player's game was all that sharp. Woods played solidly on the opening nine (hitting eight greens) as Reed tried to sort some things out with his swing. Woods was conceded a birdie from short range at the 210-yard second hole and set up birdie at the par-5 third with an all-world, soft and high pitch from about 40 yards out, nearly holing the shot. If there was a strength to Woods’ game on Friday, it was his chipping and pitching. Pure class.

Woods, 42, who captured his 80th PGA Tour title a week ago at the Tour Championship, competed in his first Ryder Cup 21 years ago in Spain. He received an incredible ovation when the U.S. team was announced at Thursday’s Opening Ceremony, and there were reminders all around him of his longevity among the game’s elite. David Duval and Englishman Luke Donald, two former No. 1s, walked with the match as vice-captains for their respective teams. Duval paired with Woods in 1999, when they were Nos. 1 and 2 in the world; Donald ran second to Woods at the 2006 PGA Championship. Nearby, on a microphone analyzing the match for Sky Sports, was Andrew Coltart, gray sprinkled into his beard, who played (and lost) to Woods in singles all the way back in ’99.

Woods hit four fairways and eight greens in his opening nine, but then started missing fairways, mostly left, and paid a rigid penalty for it. A couple of times he could do little but chop out. The rough at Le National this week is a thick mix of rye, fescue, Elmer’s Glue and stacks of rusty nails. (How does one say Winged Foot Massacre in French?) Escaping it with anything more than a pitch down the fairway is but a dream.

Still, when Reed spun a ball off the front of the green at the short 10th, but bounced right back with a chip-in for birdie, the U.S. was 2-up with eight to play and seemingly in control. A 4-0 U.S. first-morning advantage — same score as two years ago at Hazeltine — seemed in the offing.  

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Birdies were difficult to collect at Le Golf early Friday. After Molinari opened with birdie on his first hole to charge up the partisan Parisian crowd, he and Fleetwood made only two more birdies by the time they stepped to the 12th tee. Beyond that, Europe had given away the seventh hole (poor approach by Fleetwood and a team bogey) and made a best-ball bogey at the birdie-friendly, par-5 ninth, a sin. 

But Molinari, who turned away Woods earlier this summer to win the Open Championship at Carnoustie, his first major, said it was time for him and his partner to hit reset. And furthermore, when you’ve got a rookie at your side and you’re 2-down to the best player of this generation, and he is alongside a young man who’s been the best U.S. Ryder Cup player for some time, really, what is there to lose?

“We had a couple of moments where we had to dig in,” Molinari said with that low, deep tone of his, “but we both stayed positive.”

Molinari made a huge putt, the shot of the match, running in a 25-footer to pull to 1-down at the par-3 11th, and then stuffed a shot to 5 feet to birdie the difficult par-4 12th. After Reed’s chip-in at the 10th, the U.S. failed to make another birdie. The bucket was empty. So when Fleetwood contributed birdies at 15 and 16 and Molinari added one last bonus birdie at No. 17, the match was over. Europe, 3 and 1.

WATCH BELOW: Highights from this morning at the Ryder Cup

 

“It’s disappointing and frustrating for Pat and I not to contribute to the team,” Woods said. “When you lose a point, you feel like you’ve contributed, but you’re contributing to the wrong team … That part’s frustrating. Wish we could have done a better job, especially being 2-up (through 10).”

This is the eighth Ryder Cup for Woods, and Reed, playing his third, is his 13th partner. Woods went winless at Medinah (0-3-1) in 2012, the last time that he played, so his last point won dates to 2010, in Wales, where he beat Molinari in singles in a U.S. loss. Reed had played all seven of his previous Ryder Cup team matches with fellow Texan Jordan Spieth. But Furyk chose to pair Spieth with his pal Justin Thomas, reasoning that he could take one good pairing, split it, and come up with two strong pairings. (Spieth and Thomas took down Englishmen Tyrrell Hatton and Paul Casey, 1 up, in the morning four-balls.) 

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Friday morning, Woods and Reed just didn’t hold up their end of that bargain, and were dealt the only U.S. loss in the session. Woods fell to 5-9-0 in his career in four-ball matches, 13-18-3 overall. Neither player was inserted into the lineup by Captain Furyk for Friday’s afternoon foursomes.

Yes, Tiger was back, and the large crowds at Le Golf were loving that, shouting their support. But clearly he had a better result in mind. Not Fleetwood. Friday morning pretty much played out to his dreams.