Yanks' opening 6-2 lead at Ryder Cup could've been bigger

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Michael Jordan watches at the 11th hole during a four-ball match the Ryder Cup at the Whistling Straits Golf Course Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Sheboygan, Wis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Americans hit three unforgettable shots on the opening day of the Ryder Cup and two went for naught. Turns out they didn’t need them.

Captain Steve Stricker's young squad patiently built the biggest U.S. opening-day lead since 1975, pummeling defending champion Europe in both the foursomes and fourball matches Friday for a 6-2 cushion. While the fast start wasn't new — the U.S. team has gone seven straight Ryder Cups without losing the opening session — the solid finish was.

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“My message to the guys before I left,” Stricker said, “is, ‘tomorrow is a new day. Let’s just go out tomorrow and try to win that first session again ... Pretend today never happened.”

That would have been a lot harder for his team had things not worked out as well as they did.

The one swing from that trio of spectacular shots that actually paid a dividend was a towering 417-yard drive by Bryson DeChambeau at the par-5 5th. Rather than play the 581-yard hole as a dogleg right, the way it was designed, the game’s longest hitter chose the straightest route. In three previous PGA Championships at Whistling Straits, no one had dared to try and cross the large pond and the grassy ridge pockmarked with pot bunkers that guard the right side.

DeChambeau was counting on a 20-plus-mph wind to help boost his tee shot past all that trouble, and his calculations were spot on.

“I knew if it was a little downwind, I could take a unique line ... and I said to myself, ’all right, I have to aim at the green,” DeChambeau said. “So I did.”

With just 72 yards to the flag, he dialed down the power and turned up the finesse, lobbing a wedge to 4 feet and making the eagle putt in an afternoon fourball match that he and partner Scottie Scheffler halved with the European pair of Jon Rahm and Tyrell Hatton.

The less said about DeChambeau’s second moonshot the better. He tried driving the green at the 394-yard, par-4 13th and landed just five yards from the flag, but in a bunker on the left. A flubbed sand shot later, he settled for par and a tie on the hole.

More maddening still was playing partner Justin Thomas wasting this beauty from Jordan Spieth. Two down with two holes to play in the morning foursomes, Thomas' tee shot at the par-3 17th skidded across the green and down a nearly vertical slope toward Lake Michigan. It wound up lodged in deep rough.

Spieth studied the shot for a long time, pulled out a wedge and swung wildly, his momentum carrying him down the hill and almost to the shoreline trying to find a foothold. The ball, meanwhile, somehow settled just six feet from the flag. But Thomas missed the putt in a match the Spanish duo Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia won 3-and-1.

“It was kind of one of those shots you practice as a kid for fun,” Spieth said, adding. “You could roll a thousand balls off the green and you’re not going to end up there.”

Rahm turned out to be Europe's brightest light, going unbeaten in both of his matches. His partnership with Garcia enabled his countryman to notch a 23rd win, tying Nick Faldo for the Ryder Cup record. But the world's top-ranked player had a much harder slog pairing with Hatton to wrest the half-point from DeChambeau and Scheffler.

The Americans were poised for a 1-up victory until Hatton stepped up and hit 5-iron into a hard left-to-right wind that settled 7 feet away. The Englishman coolly dropped the birdie putt, salvaging something from an otherwise tough day for Europe.

“Things like this can turn the tide,” Rahm said.

It was one of the few moments when a wildly pro-American crowd didn't get its way. Travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic kept nearly all of Europe's fans from entering the United States, and chants of “USA! USA!” echoed across the bumpy terrain every time an American drained a big putt.

Tony Finau, who was paired with Harris English, made six birdies on his own ball in his fourball match, and described the experience like riding a wave he didn't want to end.

“It’s funny how momentum works. You know it can change at any given moment, and we knew we had to keep the pedal to the metal. These things start to stretch out when you have the momentum,” he said, “and it’s easy to lose.”

As if the great play and solid backing from the gallery wasn't fuel enough, Michael Jordan and Steph Curry turned up to cheer the Americans on. Tiger Woods even sent a group text through Stricker to the American players saying, "I’m right there with you and go fight and make us proud.”

“We were able to do that," Finau said finally, "and if TW’s watching, thanks for that text, brother, I think it helps us a lot.”


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