US Ryder Cup hopes in Roman ruins after Europe make history on day one
America’s hopes of retaining the Ryder Cup lay in Roman ruins after Europe delivered its first clean sheet in the opening session. As the shadows lengthened, hope grew for those who wore the colors of the United States. The combined plays of Viktor Hovland, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose kept Zach Johnson’s beleaguered team at bay.
Europe enters day two of the 44th Ryder Cup with a lead of 6½ – 1½; not insurmountable, but enough to cause mild panic in the American locker room. Optimism had turned to despair. History is on Europe’s side; Ten of the twelve teams that led by three or more after day one have won the Ryder Cup.
The European foursomes specialism is such that a 4-0 victory in the morning cannot be classified as a major shock. The fourball element was considerably tighter. Poignant even, with all but one match reaching the 18th hole. Europe’s attitude eventually became clear.
The gallop was produced by Rory McIlroy and a partner, Matt Fitzpatrick, who changed to Matt Fitzmagic. The Yorkshireman had not yet achieved a Ryder Cup point before arriving at Marco Simone and was playing like a man possessed. With Fitzpatrick holing putts from different zip codes, Europe went to six holes after seven holes. McIlroy’s score had only counted once in that point. Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele subsequently proved a minor annoyance for the Europeans, but a 5&3 result reflected the gap between the pairs.
The big drama came elsewhere. When Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth moved one ahead of Hovland and Tyrrell Hatton, it was the first time the Americans had led a match in this event. This was at 2 p.m.; the first start time was 7:35 am. When Thomas and Spieth advanced two points after 13, the US had momentum. Europe won the 14th and 16th – where Thomas missed from close range – before Hovland made a beautiful 20-foot putt at the last. Halved match.
Enter Rahm. He and Nicolai Højgaard were two ahead of Brooks Koepka and Scottie Scheffler after eight hours, but the Americans pushed back. Rahm tied the game by scoring an eagle two at the 16th. Scheffler’s birdie on the penultimate hole restored the American advantage.
Rahm saved the best for last, the Masters champion jumping for joy after converting from the front of the 18th green for another eagle. The US had taken just half a point from another match they seemed certain to win.
Johnson had reason to put his trust in Wyndham Clark and Max Homa. They were two ahead of Rose and Robert MacIntyre with as many holes to play. Rose, the most experienced man on the European team, made birdie-birdie to break American hearts. After eight matches of this Ryder Cup had been played, the visiting team would still win one.
The morning pace was set by Rahm and Hatton. They were two ahead on the turn over Scheffler and Sam Burns. A birdie on the 11th and an eagle on the 12th gave Europe a margin of error they never seemed to need. Rahm and Hatton scored a 4&3 victory to put the first point on the board.
Hovland and Ludvig Åberg triumphed over Homa and Brian Harman in a match that was only marginally more competitive. Europe won four of the first six holes – and lost the other two – to take a two lead. Hovland set the tone by coming in first. “Not bad for a guy they say can’t chip,” Shane Lowry said. The fourth was to prove the final gap that the Americans would claim. On the halved 15th hands were shaken.
There were some dissatisfaction with Lowry’s wild card selection. So the Irishman arrived in Italy with a point to prove. So far so good; Lowry and debutant Sepp Straka were 2&1 winners over Rickie Fowler and Morikawa. “The crowd was on our side pretty quickly,” Lowry said. “You could hear the roar echoing around the course and it was a very special morning of golf.”
Fleetwood Mac completed the whitewash. Pre-tournament whispers about this combination turned out to be more than just a rumor. McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood had clear chemistry and compatible golf games en route to defeating Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, 2&1. McIlroy’s laser-like iron shot from the 17th tee completed the job. “Without being cheesy, I think it’s a dream to play with Rory McIlroy in front of so many people,” said Fleetwood. “Going out with him in a Ryder Cup is really cool.
“We played well together. It’s a very high-pressure situation, but having someone you’ve known for so long, who you have a good relationship with and who is easy with makes a huge difference. The obvious message from Luke Donald, the captain of Europe: don’t stop. For the first time in his career, McIlroy has two Friday victories in a Ryder Cup.
This foursome routine left Johnson with questions to think about. He was inevitably criticized for leaving Koepka, Thomas, Spieth and Clark out of the morning session. The bigger picture was perhaps the most relevant. Most American players had not tasted competitive golf between the conclusion of the Tour Championship on August 27 and this Ryder Cup. Rustiness felt inevitable.
That’s how the winner of this major sporting spectacle currently thinks about it. But only at the moment. The studious Donald will know this all too well.