MEDINAH, Ill. (MCT) — Leading the Ryder Cup after Day One is only slightly more significant than leading the climb halfway up Mount Everest. Over the last 14 Ryder Cups, the first-day leader has a 7-6-1 record.
So maybe it’s not so much the 5-3 lead the U.S. team built during the opening sessions at Medinah Country Club on Friday. Maybe far more noteworthy is how it got there — on the backs of underachieving veteran Phil Mickelson and uninhibited rookie Keegan Bradley.
Among the most accomplished players of his generation, Mickelson entered the match-play fray with a tawdry Ryder Cup reputation. He was 11-17-6 in eight previous appearances, including 2-5-4 in foursomes. Extracting a favorable performance has been one of the great challenges of American golf.
In contrast, Bradley is new to the contentious international scene. The 2010 PGA Championship winner and nephew of LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, the 26-year-old Bradley moves about a golf course the way a hummingbird moves around nectar. At any given time, he has more amps running than the national grid.
To open this 39th Ryder Cup, “Lefty” and “Looney” played together. And the results were electric.
During morning foursomes, Mickelson and Bradley faced off against the impeccable pairing of Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia. The European duo was undefeated in foursomes matches, both together and individually. Donald and Garcia specifically were 4-0 in tandem, while Garcia was 8-0 with various partners. The B&M line ran them down.
With the 42-year-old Mickelson providing stability and Bradley providing fireworks, the Americans made four birdies over the last seven holes to overwhelm Donald-Garcia 4 and 3. Bradley closed the match in dramatic style, draining a 25-foot birdie putt on the 15th green. The Red-White-and-Bluesters went wild.
As the teams advanced to afternoon four-ball in a 2-2 tie, U.S. captain Davis Love III sent Mickelson-Bradley into battle again. This time, the foe was the formidable duo of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. The Irishmen outlasted the pair of Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker in a see-saw morning match, demonstrating their capabilities by birdieing five of six holes in one stretch.
With McIlroy carrying the rank of No. 1 player in world, with McDowell boasting a 5-2-2 Ryder Cup record, they had emerged as Europe’s thoroughbreds. They were soon to submerge.
The Mickelson-Bradley bunch ran out to a 4-up lead by making four birdies over the initial eight holes. When the match went to No. 17, a 193-yard par-3, America’s new darlings had a 2-up advantage. The 23-year-old McIlroy, with birdies on two of the last three holes, hit a shot that settled 15 feet from the flag — position “A.”
Mickelson stepped to the tee, lifted a high-arcing iron and it plopped down four feet from the flag — position “A1.” Game, set, match for the Americans.
“I was really glad to see it come down the right yardage,” Mickelson said. “It looked good in the air but until you see it land, you just never know.”
Obviously, the two-point day was a profound first for Bradley. More remarkably, in his ninth time around the Ryder Cup block, it also was a first for Mickelson.
“This is one of the most emotional days playing in a Ryder Cup that we’ll ever have,” Mickelson said. “It gets emotion out of every player, good or bad, and this has been one of the biggest highs we’ve had. I just love playing with Keegan. He’s just played so well all day and it’s kept me up the whole time. It’s been awesome.”
As for Bradley, the human five-hour energy drink hated for the day to end. “It could be the best day of my life,” said Bradley, who then waxed Ken Wilson style. “Oh baby! I wish I could go 36 more.”
Mickelson and Bradley provided the thunder, but there was a more convincing afternoon performance. In a version of Ryder Cup replacements, the American team of Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson dismantled Europe’s Paul Lawrie and Peter Hanson 5 and 4. All four players sat out the morning, but the Americans had no problem getting loose. They birdied four of the first eight holes and raced to the ninth tee with a 6-up lead. It was all over but the shouting, literally.
Two other substitutes scored for the U.S. in the nightcap, as Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson came off the bench to defeat Justin Rose and Martin Kaymer 3 and 2. Rose was part of a winning tandem with Ian Poulter in the morning. But both team captains were intent on getting all 12 of their players engaged on the first day. Thus, skipper Jose Maria Olazabal rested Poulter in favor of Kaymer, who did not contribute a single birdie to the fight.
In the end, with the other matches concluded, the focus fell on another American with Ryder Cup skeletons in his closet — Tiger Woods.
Based on chemistry they demonstrated during the President’s Cup, Woods and Steve Stricker were paired in the morning against Poulter-Rose. Both Woods and Stricker had ugly moments while losing an indifferent match 2 and 1. Woods dropped to 4-8-1 in foursomes, Striker 1-2-0.
The outcome notwithstanding, Love kept Woods-Stricker in the afternoon rotation, and they drew Europe’s Lee Westwood and Nicolas Colsaerts. Woods birdied the first hole to give the pair a 1-up lead out of the gate and he went on to make six more birdies. But there was no accounting for the unconscious Colsaerts, the only European rookie.
Representing Belgium in the Cup for the first time, overcoming an ineffectual contribution from Westwood, Colsaerts made eight birdies and an eagle. As Woods-Stricker tried to rally, Colsaerts’ 25-foot bomb on No. 17 neutered a spectacular Woods tee shot that sat “gimme” close.
The match went to No. 18 with Europe trailing 5-2 in the tournament and clinging to a 1-up lead in the match. The 29-year-old Colsaerts finished a two-putt par to put the onus on the Americans. Woods’ lengthy birdie putt skated the left edge but wouldn’t drop. Europe prevailed 1-up and avoided an afternoon American sweep.
“I didn’t play very well this morning at all,” said Woods, whose overall Ryder Cup record dropped to 13-16-2. “I was hitting it awful and not doing anything well. But I hit it good this afternoon. I drove it great this afternoon and was in position, but we ran into a guy who just made absolutely everything.”