What a gory opening day this became for Pádraig Harrington and Europe. The captain would have been forgiven reaching for smelling salts as the United States inflicted blow after blow on his beleaguered Ryder Cup holders. As Harrington contemplated how on earth to retrieve this situation, he would know only too well that history is not on his side. Harry Houdini died just across the water from Whistling Straits, in Michigan; his form of escape act is needed by Europe here.
Since the Ryder Cup was modified to include Europe rather than Great Britain & Ireland from 1979, the US had never led 6-2 after the first day. Until now. The overwhelming favourites played like overwhelming favourites, especially with putters in hand, on what for Steve Stricker was close to the perfect day. The US are already within eight and a half points of victory.
As Stricker reminds his US team that they only need more of the same – or even something approaching it – Harrington does not have his troubles to seek. A fundamental problem is the form of Rory McIlroy, who was woefully out of sorts when partnering Shane Lowry for afternoon defeat, by 4&3, to Harris English and Tony Finau.
Lowry put his arm round McIlroy by way of solace as the pair walked from the 9th green; the level of sympathy, even from a Ryder Cup debutant, was wholly understandable. McIlroy cut a dejected figure as Finau sealed a point for the US. Finau’s putting was exceptional all afternoon. Later, there was McIlroy defiance. “We can come back from 6-2,” he said. “If it’s 6-2, we can come back.” Social media duly exploded and not in agreement.
Dustin Johnson, in serving a reminder of what a formidable match player he is, combined with Xander Schauffele for a 2&1 fourball win over Paul Casey and Bernd Wiesberger. “It’s always nice when you have DJ free flowing and playing some great golf,” said Schauffele. “I’m lucky to call him my partner now, watching him play free flowing golf.”
Tyrrell Hatton produced a terrific three at the 18th to secure half a point, alongside Jon Rahm, against Bryson DeChambeau and Scottie Scheffler. DeChambeau started his day by hitting a spectator on the leg with a wayward tee shot. He still produced a birdie three at the 1st. At the 5th, DeChambeau’s drive stretched to 417 yards. Yet this tense match was about skill as opposed to brute force. Scheffler nudged the US ahead at the 15th before nervelessly ensuring that advantage remained a hole later. The final act was Hatton’s, to bring overdue European cheer. “That was huge for the team at the end,” said the Englishman. “It’s obviously a good feeling to roll that one in.”
Tommy Fleetwood and Viktor Hovland had earlier emerged as chinks of fourball light for Harrington. They were three up after eight against Justin Thomas and Patrick Cantlay before losing the 9th and 12th. As Europe tried desperately to cling on, Thomas played a wonderful approach to the par-five 16th as Fleetwood hooked into Lake Michigan. Thomas’s eagle tied the match. It was to finish that way after the trading of fours at the 18th, meaning the US remained undefeated after the first match of the day. The partisan galleries, naturally, lapped it all up.
The US had carried a 3-1 lead from the foursomes into the fourballs, to mirror the situation in Paris three years ago. The key difference here, of course, was home advantage enjoyed by Striker’s team.
Johnson and Collin Morikawa saw off Casey and Hovland, 3&2. Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger nudged Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick aside by 2&1. Cantlay and Schauffele were five up after five against McIlroy and Ian Poulter, the US duo later sealing a 5&3 success.
“We had a plan, we stuck to the plan,” said Harrington as dust settled on the foursomes. “I thought the players played well this morning. That’s matchplay. We definitely stuck with the plan.” Was “the plan” inflexible enough to be applied whatever the score?
The finest European performance arrived in game one. Rahm and Sergio García were five under for the 17 holes needed to complete a 3&1 victory over Thomas and Jordan Spieth. One criticism that is already likely to head Harrington’s way is that he not only split up the Spanish duo for the fourballs but left García out altogether. With the visitors rocking, García’s experience could have been invaluable. Instead, his afternoon contribution involved trying to gee up struggling teammates. That Fleetwood missed session one also raised eyebrows after his prominence in 2018.
Spieth delivered one of the more remarkable day one moments on the closing hole of his defeat. The Texan played a remarkable shot from thick rough covering wooden sleepers on a steep bank to within 5ft of the cup. Momentum took Spieth rapidly back down the hill and to within two paces of the lake. García stood and applauded his opponent’s efforts before admitting he feared Spieth may injure himself.
“I don’t think I exaggerated that fall,” said Spieth. “Once I started moving, I was like, ‘I’ve got to keep moving until I find a flat spot.’ It’s kind of one of those shots that you practise as a kid for fun and you don’t ultimately want to have it. The chances of it going there, you could roll a thousand balls off the green, and it’s not going it stay where it was.
“I hit a 52-degree wedge because a 60 might have gone over the back of my head. I just tried to flick it right underneath and hit it as hard as I could, as high as I could. It ended up right on a crown where it was a tough putt, we just kind of got a really tough break there.”
The US did not encounter many of them. Europe find themselves gasping for air and something, anything by way of inspiration. Otherwise? They will require a wake by the lake.