CHASKA, Minn. — On Hazeltine National’s first tee box stood The King’s golf bag from the 1975 Ryder Cup, while thousands of fans in the grandstands chanted “Arn-old Pal-mer!” (Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) in tribute to an American legend.
No stone was unturned in the inspiration department for the United States’ opening session of the 2016 matches, and the effort wasn’t wasted.
For the first time since that Palmer-captained 1975 team did it at Laurel Valley in Pennsylvania, the Friday morning alternate-shot ended in a sweep, with the home side rolling over Team Europe to give them a major leg up on ending their six-year, three-Cup losing streak.
And then the clock struck noon, and almost all of that very good work was undone by a ferocious charge from Europe’s best players in the four-ball matches — from the pairing of Open champion Henrik Stenson and Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose; from the endlessly gifted Rory McIlroy, and from the Spaniard who has made the Ryder Cup his substitute for major wins, Sergio Garcia.
They turned a 4-0 morning disaster into a 3-1 afternoon rally that saved the 41st Ryder Cup from turning into a Presidents Cup-style rout by the U.S.
“We’re back in it,” Garcia said.
Nothing the over-served multitudes of increasingly rude spectators could yell at Europeans and their golf balls — “In the water!” or “Get in the bunker!” — seemed to rattle the visitors, who took their own inspiration from the 5&4 licking Stenson and Rose laid on the Americans’ top pair of Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed in the afternoon best-ball matches.
Garcia and his fellow Spaniard, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, then took J.B. Holmes and Ryder debutant Ryan Moore to the woodshed, and McIlroy teamed with Belgian rookie Thomas Pieters to take a nervy point from Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar, who were runaway winners over Pieters and Lee Westwood in the morning foursomes.
Brooks Koepka and Brandt Snedeker, who sat out the first session, waxed Martin Kaymer and Masters champion Danny Willett 5&4 for the only U.S. point of the afternoon.
Most everyone’s fortunes were reversed in the sunny p.m. from the cold and misty a.m., when the Europeans were shut out in the opening session for only the third time since Samuel Ryder’s golf trophy first was contested in 1927.
The same alternate-shot format that spelled doom for the Americans two years ago in Scotland, when they lost seven of eight points, looked as comfortable on them as an old pair of shoes Friday.
Palmer’s team in 1975 included included Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller, Raymond Floyd … in short, it was a superstar lineup.
This U.S. team is hardly a who’s who, but it was plenty good enough on a cool and foggy morning to mop the decks with the Europeans, who never got the hang of the greens.
European captain Darren Clarke sent out his best pair, Stenson and Rose, to start, and they were resolutely dispatched 3&2 by Spieth and Reed. They made five birdies to just one by Stenson and Rose, and they needed that just to halve a hole.
“There wasn’t much in the match, tee-to-green,” Rose said. “They made a few putts, we couldn’t buy one.”
Westwood was meant to nursemaid Pieters in the final morning match, but Westwood hit it everywhere and the Europeans didn’t even make it interesting.
In between, two European pairs led their matches into the back nine but fell apart under pressure. Garcia and Kaymer were 1-up on Jimmy Walker and Zach Johnson from the second through the 11th holes but got trampled coming home and lost 4&2. Most painful for the visitors, Rory McIlroy and rookie Andy Sullivan let a 2-up lead with four to play get away and lost to Phil Mickelson, who couldn’t hit a fairway to save his life, and Rickie Fowler.
Westwood and Mickelson, with 10 and 11 Ryder Cups under their belts, respectively, were both benched for the afternoon.
“Given the buildup over the last couple years, the criticism, the comments, what have you; the pressure was as great or greater than I’ve ever felt,” Mickelson said.
“Certainly I played tight. This guy (Fowler) loosened me up. He got some of my best golf out of me in the end.”
McIlroy set things right in the afternoon. Though he and Pieters allowed Johnson and Kuchar back into the game after being 4-up, McIlroy holed a slick 15-foot downhiller for eagle at the 16th to close them out 3&2 — and bowed elaborately to the rowdy gallery.
“It’s pretty hostile out there, I must say,” McIlroy said. “You don’t want to let that get to you, but you want to let them know when you do hole a putt how much it means to you.
“We got up early and we were trying to keep the pressure on them, and I left Thomas with a little work to do in the middle of the round, I kind of lost myself. But all credit to this guy, he’s just a natural. He’s a stud.”