U.S. Ryder Cup Team Seizes Big Lead on a Wild Opening Day

HAVEN, Wis. — A snapshot panorama from the first day of the Ryder Cup would start with a crowd of 40,000 — 90 percent of it American fans because of pandemic-related travel restrictions — noisily arriving before sunrise on Friday to roar unabated for 12 hours and through eight matches that concluded in the gloaming. Patriotic costumes were in vogue, though not among the most prominent spectators in the mix: Michael Jordan and Stephen Curry.

Whistling Straits, the topsy-turvy golf fun house designed by Pete Dye along Lake Michigan, almost claimed two competitors as a stumbling Jordan Spieth ended up a hop step from a Great Lakes face plant and Ireland’s Shane Lowry flopped to his backside on an embankment like a toddler on a water slide.

Tiger Woods, still recovering from a devastating car crash in February, was there in spirit on Friday, having sent an inspirational message to the U.S. team on the eve of the event. Bryson DeChambeau, ever the lightning rod for attention, boomed his opening drive of the day off line and off the ankle of a spectator. Later, DeChambeau ripped a towering 417-yard drive and then helped chase down the world’s top-ranked male golfer, Jon Rahm, to earn a pivotal half point.

Ultimately, the big picture would reveal that the Americans had taken control of the event by winning each of the four-match morning and afternoon sessions for a 6-2 lead over the European team. It was the largest first-day lead for the United States at the Ryder Cup since 1975, when it had a five-point lead.

But that was when the Americans routinely dominated the event. Since the mid-1990s, the script has been reversed, with the Europeans having won four of the past five events and nine of the past 12.

“It was good to finally get things going, and it was obviously a good start,” Steve Stricker, the U.S. nonplaying captain, said. “We’d like to win every session.”

Stricker, a mild-mannered Wisconsin native not known for risky moves, took some big chances with his afternoon pairings after the Americans had built a 3-1 lead in the morning matches. Every match featured two-man teams from each side. The morning format was foursomes, in which players alternate hitting the same golf ball on a hole, while the afternoon brought a four-ball format, in which each golfer plays his own ball, and the lower score for a team decides the result on a hole.

The strongest American combination in the morning was Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, two of the American team’s six Ryder Cup rookies. The pair surged to a big lead early and routed the high-profile, veteran European team of Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter, 5 and 3.

“I don’t know that anyone could have beaten Xander and Patrick today,” McIlroy said later.

Usually when a new team is formed and has immediate success, Ryder Cup captains keep the players together and playing often. But for the afternoon matches, Stricker surprisingly had Schauffele play with Dustin Johnson, who had teamed with Collin Morikawa for an easy win in the morning. It had been expected that Stricker would keep that pair together as well.

Instead, Morikawa, the reigning British Open champion, sat out the afternoon matches, as did Spieth and the team of Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger, who had been victorious in a morning match.

But on Thursday, Stricker said that he had arranged his lineup for the first eight matches and that nothing that occurred in the morning session would change his plans for the afternoon. Given the pressure the Americans are under to win on home soil, few believed Stricker would stick to such a plan. But he did, and the results were impressive.

Justin Thomas celebrating on the ninth green as Viktor Hovland of Norway looked on. Thomas emerged as the emotional leader of the U.S. team on Day 1.Credit…Warren Little/Getty Images

Cantlay teamed with Justin Thomas, who had played in the morning with his close friend Spieth. Cantlay, the PGA Tour player of the year, was steady, and Thomas, who appears to be the emotional leader of the American team, was fiery. But the duo was losing for most of its match against England’s Tommy Fleetwood and Norway’s Viktor Hovland. Then, with two holes remaining, Thomas rallied for a crucial putt that created a tie, which is how the match ended.

The usually stoic Cantlay even showed some emotion during the round with an occasional fist pump.

“I was feeding off J.T. a little bit,” Cantlay said, referring to Thomas. “He carried me around all day today, and he played great, and it was a dogfight.”

Cantlay was also doing most of the post-round talking because Thomas had all but lost his voice from screaming and yelling toward the American crowd, which he did after sinking any meaningful putt.

Tony Finau, left and Harris English of the United States on the 10th green Friday afternoon. They defeated Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, 4 and 3.Credit…Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The Johnson-Schauffele team defeated England’s Paul Casey and Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger, 2 and 1. DeChambeau was paired with Scottie Scheffler in a match against Rahm and England’s Tyrrell Hatton that ended in a tie. The American team of Tony Finau and Harris English used their length off the tee and their accurate iron play to overpower McIlroy, who combined with Lowry in a 4-and-3 loss.

The competition continues Saturday with another eight matches.

Some of the Americans mentioned that Woods’s message had been part of the motivation for their winning play on Friday.

“I’m obviously not going to reveal what he said,” Schauffele said. “But we referred to it a few times a day, and we knew what we needed to do. We knew he was fist-pumping from the couch. Whether he was on crutches or not — he’s fired up as any of us back at home.”

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