GLENEAGLES, Scotland – This couldn’t be the European template captain Paul McGinley keeps talking about.
The opening day of the Ryder Cup couldn’t have gone the way he planned in spite of what the scoreboard says.
Ian Poulter, his juggernaut, gets shut out in the morning, benched in the afternoon.
After getting blanked in morning fourballs, his star pairing of world No. 1 Rory McIlroy and No. 3 Sergio Garcia narrowly avoid getting blanked again in the afternoon foursomes, squeezing out a half point in a late, desperate surge.
His hometown favorite, Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher, fails to rally all the fellow countrymen following him. In fact, Gallacher falls flat, struggling with so many errant shots that he gets benched in the afternoon, too.
Still, somehow, some way, the Euros are in command with a 5-3 lead going into Saturday.
They took control when it didn’t make sense they should take control.
Winning this thing may just be a European habit now. That might prove to be the real template if the Euros go on to win the Ryder Cup for the sixth time in the last seven tries, for the eighth time in 10 tries. You know, first we make our habits (winning), and then our habits make us (winners).
Sure, this is a long way from being over, but the way Europe took command Friday had to trouble the Americans. The Euros took control with their best players marginally delivering.
The way Friday unfolded must have left U.S. captain Tom Watson scratching his head.
Apparently, this European template is so cleverly constructed it is capable of turning highly effective components of an opponent’s game plan inside out.
Really, Watson’s team achieved some major objectives of his plan. He talked at week’s start about how taking down the other team’s “studs” can give a team a boost. How could he have known taking down Poulter, McIlroy and Garcia in the morning would end up giving the Euros a boost?
Watson has worked some magic in Scotland before, with four of his five British Open titles won here, so there’s danger in making too much of Europe’s fast start. He is, after all, the last captain to lead the United States to a Ryder Cup victory on foreign soil back in 1993. He was brought back aboard because winning overseas has become such a battle.
“This is the second quarter of a football game,” Watson said he told his team. “You're down, and there are no bad attitudes here. We're out there to do a job. You're going to go out there tomorrow and do that job. You didn't get it done today, but the game is still on.
“It's not a sprint. It's a marathon.”
McGinley knows this. He also knows there’s a powerful match-play phenomenon at work again. He saw it work against the Euros in the morning and for them in the afternoon.
“As we have all seen in Ryder Cups over the years, momentum can be a huge and key factor,” McGinley said. “We've seen huge momentum shifts, from situations like we had in the morning, where it looked at one stage like we were going to win 3-1 in the morning and ended up losing 2 1/2 to 1 1/2.”
Europe took what worked for the Americans in the morning and improved upon it.
Trailing through most of Friday’s fourballs, the Americans rallied late in the morning.
Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley won two of the final three holes to overtake McIlroy and Garcia, winning the match 1 up with Mickelson getting up-and-down for birdie from a bunker at the last in wizardly fashion.
The Euros used that “template” in the afternoon, closing hard to take 3½ of the 4 points available in foursomes.
Two down with two holes to play, McIlroy rolled in a 25-foot birdie at the 17th to win the hole. At the 18th, after McIlroy bounced a driver off a tree, Garcia turned a “lucky” lie into a majestic fairway wood, carving it to 25 feet to set up a two-putt birdie that won the hole and a half point.
At day’s end, despite the crazy way his Euros took control, McGinley said he’s still on course to a specific plan. Yes, it’s flexible, there may be adjustments, but there’s a specific end game he’s working on to get to Sunday. He said it comes from lessons learned under captains Jose Maria Olazabal, Colin Montgomerie and others.
“You're not going to win every session,” McGinley said. “We've lost more sessions than we have won in recent times. But it's important not to panic, and it's important, I believe, to look at the 24-hour period, rather than just one session, and then assess, and then go again. I had an overall skeleton plan, and you bob and weave.”
After coming under fire for benching red-hot rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed after their morning victory, Watson is in serious bob-and-weave mode. Asked if he would play all 12 of his players on Saturday, Watson said he didn’t know. It would depend on how the morning fourballs go. “These guys are all great players,” Watson said. “They can get it done. And again, I believe in them, and they believe in themselves.”
The question is whether they believe they can break this mysterious, crazy template Europe is turning into a winning habit.