NEWPORT, Wales – The United States looked like it was going to lose another Ryder Cup before the first shot was struck.
You wondered Friday at Celtic Manor if another debacle engineered by an American captain had sealed his team’s fate long before his players arrived for the matches.
Six years ago, you could argue the American team was destined to lose in that record rout at Oakland Hills the moment captain Hal Sutton chose to pair Phil Mickelson with Tiger Woods and send them out for the opening fourballs.
You wondered Friday if something equally perplexing was going to doom this year’s team.
You wondered after you saw Tiger Woods peel off the top of his rain suit to hit his opening tee shot with a chilling rain blowing sideways. You wondered when you heard American players and caddies were griping because the rain gear issued to them was leaking, water logged and handicapping their chances of winning in Wales’ foul weather. You wondered when you heard the PGA of America made an emergency run to the merchandise center in a long rain delay to purchase 20 new rain suits to replace the ones the American captain and his wife handpicked for the team to wear.
You wondered if the soggy Sun Mountain rain gear had unforgivingly tilted this event Europe’s way in this nasty Welsh weather.
Wonder, though, took some wild turns in a long, miserable opening day to this Ryder Cup.
Momentum is the Ryder Cup’s magical ingredient, a phenomenon that packs this event with more dizzying blows than you’ll see in any other golf competition.
It’s a mystical force that can turn goats into golf heroes and dunces into geniuses.
Because that’s the course American Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin is wildly riding. He seems destined to be momentum’s darling this week, to be remembered in the most dramatically diverse terms because the decisions he has made have thrust him so far into the heart of this competition. If he isn’t the goat at week’s end, he’s got to be the genius.
Pavin is the man who bungled his team’s introduction at the opening ceremony, where he forgot Stewart Cink. He’s the guy who sent out rookies Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton in the final game in the opening fourballs. And he’s the husband who let his wife choose the malfunctioning rain gear that was so important under these dour, wet Welsh skies.
That’s the hole Pavin was perceived to have dug before these matches even began, but he left the course on a swift climb upwards.
Momentum is having its way with both teams.
You saw it belting both the Americans and Europeans in haymaker fashion even on a day so limited by bad weather than no team finished more than 13 holes.
With the Welsh skies opened and rain pelting the Usk Valley home of Celtic Manor at morning’s start, the Europeans struck quickly.
They seized leads in three of the four fourball matches when the rain finally got so heavy play was suspended.
“Our team room’s obviously happier than our opponents right now,” European captain Colin Montgomerie said in a suspension of play that would last 7 hours and 18 minutes.
Through the delay, European players could be seen giddily bouncing in and out of the clubhouse, mingling with fans and beaming with confidence in Sky Sports TV interviews over their fast start. Confidence was so high, they practically mocked the Americans upon hearing their opponents were abandoning their rain gear.
“Just have to say our waterproofs are performing well,” Europe’s Rory McIlroy tweeted during the rain delay.
Ryder Cup momentum, though, is a cruel and fickle master of this event.
When the rains subsided, and play finally resumed, a drier American team that didn’t even need its rain suits regained some form, found some rhythm and made a hard charge with the sun setting.
A flurry of terrific shots put Europe on its heels.
“The way the U.S. team came back and performed, I’m very proud of them,” Pavin said.
Stewart Cink holed a 20-foot birdie at the seventh hole to give himself and Matt Kuchar their first lead against the Northern Ireland tandem of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. It was one of three monster putts he holed on the day.
Phil Mickelson made three birdies in a row before dark in teaming with Dustin Johnson to cut Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer’s 3-up advantage to 1 up.
Woods got up and down for birdie at the ninth hole with partner Steve Stricker watching to give the Americans their first lead in that match against Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher.
The blows were dizzying in that finish at dusk but Poulter got in the last to prevent the Americans from taking a lead in three of the four matches to bed before Saturday’s resumption of play. Poulter holed a 20-foot birdie to square the match.
Pavin’s much scrutinized rookie tandem of Overton and Watson were making him look good clinging to a surprising 1-up lead against Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington.
With the sun sinking over these suspended matches, the bounce was gone in Europe’s step with the Americans leading in two matches, all square in one and down in just one.
You could see the change in Montgomerie’s face when he met the media afterward. He looked like he was wearing a leaking rain suit.
“This will ebb and flow for the next two days,” Montgomerie said. “You’ll see 20 minutes of good from Europe and 20 minutes of good from the USA. I always said this was going to be close, and I don’t think anything less right now.”
It will likely come down to who commands momentum’s last favor.