NEWPORT, Wales – The Americans stood behind the 18th green with smiles rarely seen on European soil as they watched yet another match go their way Saturday in the Ryder Cup.
They won the opening two sessions. They had a 6-4 lead over Europe. They grabbed lunch and headed back out to the golf course.
And then, it all changed.
Two hours later, Europe was leading all six matches when darkness stopped play at Celtic Manor. The Americans still had the lead. It just didn’t feel that way. And with so much European blue on the scoreboard, it didn’t even look that way.
“Momentum is key in these matches, and we haven’t had any yet,” European captain Colin Montgomerie said. “And it’s been a superb session from the moment that we set off.”
No points are awarded until a match is over, but it was looking good for Europeespecially with Lee Westwood and Luke Donald handing Tiger Woods one of his worst beatings ever in a Ryder Cup. They were 4 up over Woods and Steve Stricker through nine holes.
“I’d say it wasn’t a bad thing that it got dark,” U.S. captain Corey Pavin said.
There has never been a day at the Ryder Cup quite like this one.
About the only thing that resembled a typical Ryder Cup was 11 hours of golf at its highest level.
Sixteen players from both sides competed in parts of three matches. The opening fourballs session ended before lunch, followed by six alternate-shot matches, and play finally was stopped with six matches of both formats still going on. On two occasions, a fourballs match allowed an alternate-shot match to play through.
“I’m not sure what day it is,” Zach Johnson said.
Heavy rain was in the forecast for Sunday, with 12 singles matches still to play after the third session is completed. Any stoppage in play would result in the first Monday finish in Ryder Cup history.
Woods and Stricker won their second straight match convincingly, Stewart Cink delivered a clutch putt and 21-year-old Rickie Fowler atoned for a bizarre blunder by making a birdie on the 18th hole for an unlikely half-point. Padraig Harrington won his first match for Europe in six years and Westwood looked like a player on the verge of going to No. 1 in the world.
But the final two hours changed everything.
Europe came roaring back behind Westwood, Donald and a host of others, taking the lead in every match and pulling some 40,000 fans who stood in the muck back into the game.
“Although none of these games finished, obviously we are in a very, very strong position,” Montgomerie said. “It was a very important two hours of play, and we came through it with flying colors.”
Europe had lost only four holes of the 39 that were played in the third session.
“We’re just going to have to go back tonight, rest up and fire at them tomorrow,” Pavin said. “We’re down in all six matches. I have not seen points given for matches that are through four, five, six or seven holes. So we are going to go out and try to turn those around, and try to turn the momentum back in our favor.”
Westwood and Donald, who have emerged as the European stars at Celtic Manor, might make that difficult.
They won the first two holes – Stricker missed the first green with a 9-iron in hand and Westwood holed a birdie putt on No. 2 – then let the Americans self-destruct. Woods couldn’t make a putt as they fell further behind, and the only positive note came on the ninth and final hole when Stricker made a 12-foot putt. Europe still was 4 up with nine holes to play in its foursomes match.
In the other alternate-shot match, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy birdied the par-3 seventh to go 3 up, and McDowell will have a short birdie putt when they return.
The other four matches are fourballs. Europe has 1-up leads in three of them, with Miguel Angel Jimenez and Peter Hanson 2 up over rookies Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton.
Overton and Watson led a surprising charge for the Americans, trying to win on European soil for the first time since 1993. Overton made putts from everywhere as they closed out a 3-and-2 victory in the opening session, and they were poised to win their second match until Donald drilled his tee shot to 3 feet on the par-3 17th for a 2-and-1 victory.
Woods and Stricker looked unbeatable for most of the day. They were 4-0 last year in the Presidents Cup, and even Woods’ unpredictable game didn’t change much. He contributed enough clutch shots to stay in the match long enough for Stricker to take over. Stricker chipped in for birdie on the 12th to take the lead for good in a 2-up victory in fourballs.
“His stroke is so good,” Woods said, referring to his 12th partner in the Ryder Cup. “It’s fun to watch him. He’s got that ‘go-in’ look.”
In the second session, they steamrolled Jimenez and Hanson, 4 and 3, in what has been the shortest match.
Westwood and PGA champion Martin Kaymer looked as though they would go 2-0 in their matches until a stunning turnaround in alternate-shot got Fowler off the hook for his error on the fourth hole.
Jim Furyk pulled his tee shot into the muck, and Fowler figured his best relief was to drop the ball on the cart path. But he used the golf ball in his pocket – not the one Furyk had hit off the tee – which is a loss of hole.
They recovered at the end when Furyk hit a wedge to the back of the 18th green to 4 feet. After Westwood missed his birdie putt, Fowler made the birdie for a half-point that felt like a loss for Europe, which never trailed in the match.
Cink also came up big. In a wild alternate-shot with Matt Kuchar, in which only five holes were halved, the match was all square when the advantage went to Europe on the 17th. McDowell, the U.S. Open champion, hit his tee shot to inside 10 feet while Kuchar was well left of the flag. Cink knocked in his 30-foot birdie putt, slapping hands with Kuchar in the most animated celebration the Americans had all day.
McIlroy missed the birdie putt, then hit a wedge into the bunker on the 18th when his team needed a victory.