Dominant Europe maintain five-point lead despite late rally from United States
This seemed like a team from the United States until the last seconds under a setting sun in total disarray. How else can you describe a record of 9&7 for the world number 1 and reigning US PGA champion? How else can you describe Zach Johnson advising Jordan Spieth on the 16th tee, moments before the Texan shot his tee into a pond? Spieth and Justin Thomas soon shook hands after succumbing to defeat against Justin Rose and Robert MacIntyre.
At that time, Europe’s lead over the US was 10½ versus 4½. “Can we play against you every week?” sang European fans. Johnson, the American captain, looked dazed and confused. This would look even better for Luke Donald and his European team if Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick can continue their lead over Patrick Cantlay and Wyndham Clark.
Instead, an inspired Cantlay offered the US at least vague hope. The man who supposedly refuses to wear a hat as a form of protest against the lack of pay for players in the Ryder Cups finished with a birdie, a birdie, giving the Americans a point and a 3-1 session win.
Cantlay drove a glorious iron to the par-three 17th. He converted at last for a four from 43 feet when a halved game looked strange. Cantlay’s teammates waved their caps in a show of support. McIlroy, furious at the American festivities, said the photo on the final green added “fuel to the fire” for day three.
Europe needs four points to regain the Ryder Cup. Out of a dozen singles tournaments, where a number of opponents were visibly out of sorts, this shouldn’t be much. Nevertheless, Europe recovered from a 10-6 deficit to pull off the Miracle of Medina in 2012.
Donald, who played in that match, won’t be counting chickens at 10½-5½, but the captain was keen to highlight the positives as the dust settled on a hectic afternoon. “I think if you asked us to be at 10½ after two days, we would accept that,” he said. “We’re in a great place.”
An ounce of American optimism had arrived earlier in the first two games of Saturday’s four-ball session. The problem was that Europe already had a 9½ to 2½ lead before these groups started following the course.
Sam Burns and Collin Morikawa easily won, 4&3 against Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Åberg. Max Homa, the top American performer, teamed up with Brian Harman for a 2&1 success against Tommy Fleetwood and Nicolai Højgaard.
Rose, the oldest player in Europe at 43, has been an excellent mentor for debutant MacIntyre. The Scot, who had endured plenty of trouble, surged forward when it mattered most with a two in the 13th to double Europe’s lead. Thomas and Spieth were stopped from there, ultimately by a margin of 3 and 2. “Today is everything I dreamed of,” said a beaming MacIntyre. “I worked hard for this.”
Foursome’s embarrassment came before Brooks Koepka and Scottie Scheffler. They were four after four behind Hovland and Åberg. After 10 they were eight behind Hovland and Åberg. The game ended on the 11th green, with 9&7 first in the Ryder Cup. Scheffler was reduced to tears as he thought about what had just happened. A day earlier, Koepka had accused Jon Rahm of acting like a child. Poetically speaking, Koepka then decided to play like that. This time there was no nonsense talk from the LIV rebel, who cleverly shook away calmly.
Homa and Harman earned the US its only point of the foursome, 4&2 over Shane Lowry and Sepp Straka. “They were unbelievably good,” Straka said. “Sometimes you just meet guys who are better than you.”
McIlroy and Fleetwood were involved in a fantastic match against Thomas and Spieth. Europe took the first three holes, but would probably never have it their way again after that. After trading holes, Europe was three up again when Fleetwood made an Eagle Putt on the 11th. The US won the 13th and 14th, but Thomas found himself in trouble from the 15th tee as Europe pushed back. A birdie three on the 16th left Europe one ahead with two to play; As Thomas swung his tee shot on the short 17th, the Europeans were able to close out the match. McIlroy’s clinching putt was from 13ft.
Donald resisted what must have been a strong temptation to give McIlroy the afternoon off. Instead, Rahm was the big name who got some down time. The Masters champion had teamed with Tyrrell Hatton to defeat Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, 2&1, in the foursome. Schauffele’s interaction with Johnson at the end of the game hardly looked particularly cordial.
The nature of the American scene means that moments like these, potentially irrelevant ones, are made to feel like they matter. Such was the extent of European dominance at the time that Hatton was asked if he wanted to match or even better the US’s 19-9 win at Whistling Straits two years ago. “That’s nice on paper, but at the end of the day we’re here to win,” Hatton said. “Whatever the score, if you win, you leave extremely happy. So that’s our goal.”
This is a completely sensible approach. If Europe somehow implodes from here, it will become a sporting legend for all the wrong reasons. Rome wasn’t built in a day; A five-point lead should not evaporate in one go.