GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy — It took until 2:01 p.m. local time for America to lead a match for the first time in the 44th Ryder Cup. The novelty of standing in the Italian sun had since worn off, with spectators cramming into the small pockets of shade, stepping through crunched beer cans and twisted plastic water bottles as various chants of “Ole, Ole, Ole” broke out.
It was Justin Thomas who finally turned part of the scoreboard red, after a morning session where Europe dominated the foursomes 4-0 and made a quick start to the fourballs. Thomas’ birdie on the par-4 sixth hole brought a temporary halt to the blue attack, but there was to be no firm U.S. riposte in the afternoon session, with Europe taking Friday 6½-1½ .
The day finished with Justin Rose and rookie Robert MacIntyre saving a half point by coming back from two holes down with two to play, meaning the sole U.S. contribution from the first day in Rome was a trio of ties to match the biggest lead seen in the Ryder Cup history. And Europe looked to their big-name players: Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland and Rory McIlroy, who impressed throughout the day.
“They are superstars,” Europe captain Luke Donald said. “They are studs. They are three of the top four players in the world. You need your superstars firing. You need them playing well. Without that, it’s really an uphill battle. They stepped up and did what they needed to do, and I’m so proud of them.”
Europe will head into Saturday with a 6½-1½ advantage over the U.S., a score that not even Donald could have dreamed of when play started in the early hours of Friday. But Europe will be wary of the U.S. comeback, and there are still 20 points up for grabs.
U.S. must get a quick start
The American team looked bewildered at times on Friday morning as Europe slotted every pressure putt, chipped in from all corners of Marco Simone and stretched out to an incredible lead. The pairings put out by Zach Johnson looked — with the benefit of hindsight — ill-judged, with rookie Sam Burns struggling while leading off with Scottie Scheffler. The two are close friends, but they never clicked against Rahm and Hovland, who looked right at home from the start.
Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka brought a bit of the fear factor back in the afternoon on a day the rookies struggled, as did Xander Schauffele and Collin Morikawa. Wyndham Clark is aware of the need to get things off and running quickly on Saturday.
“We definitely need a better day than today,” Clark said. “We need to kind of flip it and put it in our favor, if we could try to dominate in the morning and in the afternoon. So, you know, at least we got some points, but we have a tall task in front of us.”
To do this, they’ve gone with the big hitters. Justin Thomas and Justin Spieth are linking up again to get things started, Koepka and Scheffler are back together, Max Homa and Brian Harman have paired up, and Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay will be the anchor leg.
Get rid of the rust
Clark’s comments that Europe will be “leaking oil” and “mentally fatigued” by Sunday are looking a touch ill-judged at present. Nine of the 12 in the U.S. side have not played since the FedEx Cup in late August, and instead of the European side looking tired from their pre-Ryder Cup calendar, it was the U.S. who looked rusty.
They simply couldn’t find a putt in the morning session with efforts slipping past to the left, right, above and beneath the hole. They struggled to read the greens and the Europeans pounced.
On Saturday, they need to refind their radar, but others need to grasp the chance to become American heroes. Jordan Spieth, Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele all struggled Friday while Koepka and Clark played with more consistency. Scheffler’s putting woes look to be correcting themselves while Justin Thomas overcame two early missed chances to then put some red on the board for the first time. There’s opportunity for those players to bring some joy Saturday.
Jon Rahm needs an ice bath
Rahm hit Europe’s first tee shot of the day Friday, and then saved them a key half point nearly 11 hours later as he chipped in with eagle, par, eagle in the final three holes with Nicolai Hojgaard to prevent Scheffler and Koepka getting America’s first win of the Cup.
He was Europe’s hero on Day 1, and was inspired by the memory of the late Seve Ballesteros.
“I’ve got to give Nicolai props because over here on 18, he gave me the freedom to basically go at it, and he told me to hit a putt, try to make it,” Rahm said. “And he said, ‘What would Seve do,’ right, ‘do it for Seve.’ I don’t know if he would have quite made it like that, but I’m sure glad that it went in.”
His confidence also helped his partners, with Hojgaard paying tribute to “Rahmbo” afterwards. Rahm’s highlight reel from the first day will include that 63-foot chip to steal eagle and the hole on the 16th on Friday afternoon and then his 33-foot putt to save the tie on the 18th. He’s got a cult following at Marco Simone, and follows in the footsteps of some Spanish greats in this competition. And he even got a rise out of Koepka, who was clearly irked by Rahm at some point Friday.
“I mean, I want to hit a board and pout just like Jon Rahm did,” Koepka said. “But, you know, it is what it is. Act like a child. But we’re adults. We move on.”
So, wrap Rahm in cotton wool and throw him in an ice bath; Europe need more of the same on Saturday.
Europe needs to continue trusting the process
Donald’s Europe team has put a huge emphasis on stats for this year’s tournament, drawing on Edoardo Molinari’s expertise and side business. They looked to the algorithms and saw Europe perform better in foursomes than four-ball, so they switched the order around for Friday and it paid off brilliantly. They also look to the stats for help when picking pairings.
One that should flourish again Saturday is the all-Scandinavian combination of Hovland and rookie Ludvig Aberg. They found common ground in the build-up to the tournament, and also established a new language as they walked around the course Friday.
“So he spoke Norwegian; I spoke Swedish,” Aberg said afterwards. “It’s very similar. I actually have two Norwegian roommates that I live with, so kind of got used to the Norwegian language. But yeah, it’s a comfort.”
Whatever stats and reasoning they’re using, it’s working. And Team Europe knows it has to start Saturday well, as the U.S. will be throwing anything and everything at them after a humbling day.
“Obviously Team USA is strong and will be strong and will come out strong tomorrow,” Rose said. “There’s no complacency here.
“We’re going to be fighting for small margins out there. I think Team Europe did an incredible job today the last few holes fighting for those small margins, and that’s the difference on a day like today.
“Momentum is a lot. Momentum can be everything as well. It goes in waves, and we’ll definitely have to bed in at times over the next couple days. But as long as we stay focused and on plan, then hopefully the team can keep performing.”
Mention also has to be given to Matt Fitzpatrick. Heading into this year, he’d lost all five matches Ryder Cup he played. But Donald saw he’d never played four-ball and thought he’d be perfect to play alongside McIlroy. Again the process paid off, as Fitzpatrick went on a five-birdie tear in the first six holes Friday afternoon.
Day 2 morning pairings
Tommy Fleetwood & Rory McIlroy vs. Justin Thomas & Jordan Spieth
Ludvig Aberg & Viktor Hovland vs. Scottie Scheffler & Brooks Koepka
Shane Lowry & Sepp Straka vs. Max Homa & Brian Harman
Jon Rahm & Tyrrell Hatton vs. Xander Schauffele & Patrick Cantlay
Players to watch
Brooks Koepka: He was clearly up for the fight Friday and was hurting after seeing a possible win snatched away by the brilliance of Rahm, so expect him to start at 100 mph on Saturday.
Tommy Fleetwood: He only played the morning session Friday, but is stepping into the void left by Ian Poulter as the crowd favorite and the man who can turn matches on their heads. He leads off with McIlroy on Saturday in a blockbuster match against Thomas and Spieth.