ROOTING INTERESTS

Ryder Cup 2021: Everything has gone the Americans' way so far. It'd be better if that changes

By Daniel Rapaport

HAVEN, Wis.—Stephen Curry wanted an update and Phil Mickelson wanted an audience. This mutually beneficial transaction took place just left of Whistling Straits’ 14th fairway, where Lefty relayed the good news he’d just been delivered via headset.

“Tony and Harris just won 13 to go 4 up,” said one legend to another, while a solid 20 inside-the-ropers sheepishly eavesdropped. The U.S. had commanding leads in two matches, were all square in one and closing fast in the lone tilt Europe led.

“We have a chance to do something special . . . or we could split the session.”

As is often the case in life (and in matters involving Mickelson), the truth lie somewhere in the middle. After racing to a 3-1 lead in the morning foursomes, the Americans bucked the trend of Friday afternoon European dominance and took the afternoon session by that same score line—and it would’ve been worse had Tyrrell Hatton not summoned a three-perfect shot birdie at the last to squeak a tie for he and Jon Rahm against Bryson DeChambeau and Scottie Scheffler. The talent-rich home side leads 6-2 and Europe’s chances are on life support.

"No doubt it was a tough day,” European captain Padraig Harrington said. “Clearly not what you wanted.”

It started promising enough. Harrington made a point to stress the importance of Friday morning’s opening tilt of Rahm and Sergio Garcia vs. Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. It’s a huge match for both teams, he said umpteen times Thursday night, clearly confident in his Spaniards’ chances to topple a powerhouse duo and send a message. They came through for their captain but their teammates missed the memo. It was the only match Europe won all day.

"It's a great start. We are very happy with the start," U.S. captain Steve Stricker said. "But my message to the guys before I left is tomorrow is a new day. You know, let's just go out tomorrow and try to win that first session again in the morning and pretend today never happened, and let's keep our foot down and continue to play the golf that we know we can play."

Simply put, Friday could not have gone much better for the Americans. Collin Morikawa is ay-okay, it turns out. His partner, a fully engaged Dustin Johnson, played like a cyborg in both sessions. Tony Finau stumbled upon a scorching putter. Xander Schauffele may not lose a match. Justin Thomas absorbed that opening body blow and punched back with ferocity. Bryson DeChambeau launched a 417-yard-drive and didn’t hear a single “Brooksy” chirp all day. After he stuck his tee shot to kick-in range on the par-3 12th, the all-American crowd serenaded the big man with chants of DE-CHAM-BEAU! DE-CHAM-BEAU! This was a red, white and blue party.

“Starting out, we saw a couple guys get an early lead, and we got a lot of confidence in them,” said Harris English, who rode shotgun on the Finau train. “It definitely helps us seeing them play good golf and then knowing it's out there and to keep making birdies. So we kind of took that and ran with it.”

This young American side, with a full half of their players unburdened by past Ryder Cup failures, exuded a brashness that sent a message of their own: Experience is overrated. Matt Kuchar’s smile has been replaced by Scottie Scheffler’s swagger. Webb Simpson’s kindness has been subbed out for Daniel Berger’s fire. Finau paused for selfies with drunk fans because why the hell not?

The Europeans, in stark contrast, looked like a team whose best days might be in the rearview mirror. Their sparkplug, Ian Poulter, went out with a whimper in the morning. Their frontman, Rory McIlroy, was dusted in both his matches. Their Ryder Cup icon, Garcia, had to rest in the afternoon because he is a 41-year-old man, and 41-year-old men don’t play five matches. Saturday could get ugly. We’d all be worse off if it does.

Yes, we know, you’re likely rooting for the Americans. We’re not asking you to forsake the country of your birth or residence. But rooting for the U.S. is only fun when there’s a worthy adversary. There’s a reason the Alabama crowd starts to clear out once they hang 60 on Kentucky. Blowouts are no fun. It’s why we invited continental Europe to join the party in 1979—because the Ryder Cup should be competitive. There is nothing in our sport like a competitive Ryder Cup.

We got a taste of it Friday afternoon, when Europe could not afford to lose the two matches it had its teeth in. Every person on the grounds congregated on the 18th hole to watch the finish of Rahm/Hatton vs. DeChambeau/Scheffler, then stayed there to catch the finish of Fleetwood/Hovland vs. Thomas/Cantlay. This is the essence of the Ryder Cup—seeing Jordan Spieth biting his nails as he roots on his buddy, watching Harrington furrow his brow as he begs an approach to be as good as it looks, smelling European caddies chain-smoke nervous cigarettes. When it’s close, every hole feels like the 72nd of a major.

Tension is built into the fabric of this event, and the tension builds with each successive day—if the scoreboard lets it. This event comes once every two years (in non-COVID times), and it’d be a damned shame for it to be essentially over by lunchtime on Saturday. Sunday Singles should matter. Hell, Europe very nearly lost this Ryder Cup on Friday afternoon, for anything above a four-point deficit would be too big an ask. When it looked exceptionally bleak, Rory McIlroy was asked about his feelings going into Saturday. He responded with a wish.

“We can come back from 6-2,” he said. “If it's 6-2, we can come back.”

It’s 6-2. Now let’s hope he’s right.

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