ROME, ITALY | Like any big-budget movie, the Ryder Cup demands superstar leads, a solid supporting cast, fantastic locations and a plot packed with compelling twists and turns.
One of the most infamous flops of all-time, “Cleopatra,” was filmed in Rome’s Cinecittà Studio. Exactly 60 years after its release, the city’s Zach Johnson-directed Team USA project is facing a brutally tough task if it is not to emulate the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton vehicle based on first-day takings that leave the visitors to Marco Simone Golf Club a record-equalling five points in arrears.
It was bad enough that Europe had inflicted a 4-0 morning foursomes drubbing on the visitors with 4-and-3 triumphs for Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton against Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns, and Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Åberg over Max Homa and Brian Harman, plus 2-and-1 victories for Shane Lowry and Sepp Straka against Rickie Fowler and Collin Morikawa, and Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood over Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay.
What left U.S. supporters feeling even more bereft than the blank balance sheet was that at no stage in the entire morning had any of their nation’s four combinations even held a lead.
European captain Luke Donald’s decision to tweak the format of the week, starting the first two days with foursomes for the first time in Europe since 1993, had proved to be a master stroke.
The home team was no stranger to first-day alternate-shot success on home soil, but the 3½-½ scoreline at Gleneagles in 2014 and the 4–0 in Paris four years later had turned morning deficits into overnight leads.
This time, the Europeans had elegantly skipped the silly business of placing themselves behind the 8-ball.
Fears that Johnson’s production was heading straight to DVD (assuming such a concept still exists) placed enormous pressure on his cast in the afternoon four-balls, and they did at least show up after they had failed to before lunch.
Indeed, after fully 6½ hours of action, an American pairing – Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth up against Viktor Hovland and Tyrrell Hatton – at last found themselves leading a match. A trickle did not become a tide, but it was certainly a long-overdue threat to European dominance.
Thomas and Spieth were never again down in their match. Behind them, Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka fought hard against Jon Rahm and Nicolai Højgaard, while Wyndham Clark and Max Homa recovered from a slow start to assume control against Justin Rose and Robert MacIntyre.
“I don’t know if (Seve) would have quite made it like that (the ball hit the back of the hole and bounced up before rattled into the cup), but I’m sure glad that it went in.” – Jon Rahm
Only Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele, in the final game against Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick, failed to splash red on the leaderboard. They lost six holes in a row from the second to the rampant Europeans and eventually lost, 5 and 3.
Late in the day, it seemed likely that the U.S. would reduce that four-point morning deficit, but there was a plot twist that leaves American supporters fearful about the weekend ahead.
Hatton and Hovland made birdie at 16 and 18 to first tie Thomas and Spieth and then confirm a shared point.
The best was yet to come.
Rahm – a more-likely star of “Gladiator” than “Cleopatra” – sensationally chipped in for an eagle 2 at 16 to tie Scheffler and Koepka.
World No. 1 Scheffler responded with a birdie 2 at 17 to return the Americans to 1 up.
But Rahm found the green with his second blow at the par-5 18th and then drained an outrageous eagle putt to force another half-point from a game that had seemed lost for Europe.
He afterward revealed that his 22-year-old rookie partner Højgaard had played an astoundingly mature role ahead of the critical final putt.
“He told me to hit a putt, to try to make it,” Rahm said. “And he added: ‘What would Seve do? Do it for Seve.’ I don’t know if (Seve) would have quite made it like that (the ball hit the back of the hole and bounced up before rattled into the cup), but I’m sure glad that it went in.”
Johnson, the American captain, would have been desperately hoping that Clark and Homa, who were 2 up with two to play, would secure a first full point for the week, but it was not to be.
They lost 17 to a Rose par and 18 to the veteran Englishman’s birdie 4.
The U.S. had led in each of those top three four-ball matches with three holes to play and had contrived to win only a half point in each of them.
The Europeanshad polished off the visitors before reaching 18 in every morning match, and when they hit the par-5 closer in the afternoon it yielded three dramatic half-points for them, each time with clutch putts that prompted wild scenes of celebration inside and outside the ropes.
Captain Donald was not getting ahead of himself, however.
“An historic day, but we want it to be an historic week,” he said. “What we did going down 18 just shows the determination, the grit, the perseverance, the kind of the unity of our team because it really looked like 3-1 [in the session] at one point for the U.S.
“We’ll enjoy the last hour and the celebration, but once I’m back at the hotel, we’ll have a team meeting, and we’ll be back to business.”
“Today’s done, and there’s more opportunity out there. 28 percent of the tournament is done, so we’ve got 72 percent left.” – Zach Johnson
Europe leads by five points, a position of strength at the end of day one experienced only by the U.S. in the 1975 match and Europe in 2004.
The visitors have never before endured a winless day of Ryder Cup golf. The Americans might have returned to their hotel via Vatican City where they could have prayed to avoid a repeat of the 2004 edition at Oakland Hills in Michigan, where the U.S. trailed by five after the first day and eventually lost by nine.
Saturday morning’s foursomes assume huge significance. The Americans surely cannot afford to lose the session and absolutely cannot permit a repeat of Friday morning.
Johnson knows it but was determined to remain bullish.
“Today’s done, and there’s more opportunity out there,” he said insistently. “28 percent of the tournament is done, so we’ve got 72 percent left.
“I’m extremely proud of the team’s fight and their character. I think when you have adversity and when you have challenge, you can kind of go one of two ways, and they decided to do it with class and character.
“I think in time that positive attitude can breed momentum. I think it’s just a matter of time. I believe in these guys. This is just the start. Our time’s coming.”
He also revealed that the U.S. team room has been fighting illness.
“The bottom line is, there’s been some unforeseen things that we’ve had to navigate around, which is really unfortunate, in the sense of health. It’s not an excuse, because we have depth, but I’ll just say, I’m grateful we have a team doctor.”
Saturday morning foursomes
Here are Saturday’s four alternate-shot morning matchups (Central European Summer Time, which is six hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Daylight Time):
7:35 a.m. – Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood (Europe) vs. Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth (U.S.)
7:50 a.m. – Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Åberg (Europe) vs. Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka (U.S.)
8:05 a.m. – Shane Lowry and Sepp Straka (Europe) vs Max Homa and Brian Harman (U.S.)
8:20 a.m. – Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton (Europe) vs. Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele (U.S.)
Top: The Europeans staged a memorable performance on the Ryder Cup’s opening day. Photo: Keyur Khamar, PGA Tour via Getty Images
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