By Mitch Phillips
The Ryder Cup delivered yet again on Friday as Europe produced a stirring fightback to win three and halve one of the foursomes matches against the United States and take a 5-3 lead after a typically tense and hugely entertaining first day.
The US had much the best of the morning fourballs, the highlight being a remarkable performance by rookie duo Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth to hammer Ian Poulter and Scottish new boy Stephen Gallacher 5 & 4.
That helped the visitors to a 2 1/2-1 1/2 lead after a session where gusting winds made low scoring difficult but merely added to the drama for the fans who swamped the Gleneagles course.
Europe roared back in the alternate-shot foursomes format, as Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson got their second point of the day with a two-up victory over Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson having earlier hammered Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson 5 & 4.
Europe’s strongest pair on paper, world numbers one and three Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia, struggled almost all day and were well beaten by Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley in the fourballs.
They looked to be going down again when they trailed Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler by two with two to play in the afternoon but a 25-foot birdie putt on the 17th by McIlroy and a brilliant second from deep rough by Garcia on the last enabled them to scramble the unlikeliest of points.
“I think that half was as a good as a win,” said European captain Paul McGinley.
“We have seen in Ryder Cups over the years how important momentum is and we showed real strength of character to respond to that American surge and get blue back on the board.”
That surge was begun by Spieth, 21, and Reed, 24, – the youngest partnership in the history of the event – who were nerveless and relentless in taking down Europe’s ‘Mr Ryder Cup’ Poulter with a run of five birdies in six holes around the turn.
“It was very quiet around our group and that was a goal we had to achieve,” said Spieth.
Spieth and Reed were somewhat surprised to be told after their dazzling debuts that they would be sitting out the afternoon’s action and Watson might come to rue his decision after the foursomes turnaround.
Poulter, who had won 11 of his previous 12 matches, also kept his clubs in the bag in the afternoon but nobody was questioning that move as the wildcard selection looked a pale shadow of the demonic player who sparked Europe’s Miracle of Medinah comeback two years ago.
The third American debutant, albeit a 35-year-old one, also had a day to remember as Walker twice chipped in to help secure a morning half, again with Fowler, having trailed Thomas Bjorn and Martin Kaymer by two after 15.
Mickelson and Bradley, who won all three games they played together two years ago, struggled for form in a ragged fourball against McIlroy and Garcia but Mickelson splashed a trade-mark beauty of a bunker shot for a point-clinching birdie on the last hole.
It was a fitting way for the ever-popular left-hander to mark becoming the first American to appear in 10 Ryder Cups, but, as ever, he deflected the glory.
“The eagle that Keegan made on 16 gave us a huge momentum boost, the shots he hit there were just stupendous,” he said.
The afternoon did not go so well, however, as hugely impressive French debutant Victor Dubuisson and Graeme McDowell beat them 3 & 2.
Lee Westwood and rookie Jamie Donaldson played some of the best golf of the day to beatJim Furyk and Matt Kuchar two-up after all four had sat out the fourballs.
Those matches had begun many, many hours before, on a crisp, bright morning amid a tumultuous atmosphere around the huge stand surrounding the first tee.
“It’s amazing – we didn’t even have grandstands in 1977, it was just the gallery ropes,” American Watson said in comparison with his first taste of the Ryder Cup at Royal Lytham in England.
Webb Simpson set the tone for a forgettable personal day when he topped the opening drive of the whole event – perhaps unnerved by being introduced as his partner Bubba Watson, one of the most recognisable figures in the game.
Two years ago the duo won both their matches 5 & 4 but this time they failed to muster a birdie between them as they lost by the same margin to Rose and Stenson.
“The captain put a lot of faith in us by putting us out first and then keeping us together,” said Rose.
“It was a great day, really special.”
The US now face an uphill battle if they are to claim their first win on foreign soil since 1993 when Watson first captained but the veteran was in no mood to concede.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “And it’s all probably going to be really close come Sunday.”