CHASKA, Minn. – One of the most critical decisions a Ryder Cup captain must make is choosing which pairing to send out first. It usually sets the tone for the day.
Sometimes, the leadoff team is obvious; Bubba Watson, for example, is too nervous and fidgety to slot anywhere other than first. Patrick Reed isn’t quite that restless, of course – no one is, really – but U.S. captain Davis Love III noted how the fiery Texan, for the past six months, “has just been talking so excited. We felt like that first-tee atmosphere just fit him.” Love figured that if Reed was making birdies and pumping his fist and firing up the crowd, if he recreated what happened at Gleneagles, then that energy would trickle down through the rest of the lineup.
But European captain Darren Clarke went another direction entirely. In tabbing Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose, his most accomplished team, for the opening two-ball, Clarke opted for a display of strength. Clarke knew Love was sending out Reed and his usual partner, Jordan Spieth, and it didn’t much matter. Four of the top 11 players in the world. Head to head. Let the best team win.
“They were always going to be my choice to lead Europe,” Clarke said. “That was never, never in doubt.”
But it at least could have been debated after the opening foursomes match, when Stenson and Rose combined for just a single birdie over 16 holes, despite giving themselves opportunities on nearly every green.
“It’s one thing if you’re losing and playing badly,” Stenson said, “but we were both pretty happy with our performance.”
And then in the afternoon, in the same spot, against the same team? “Brilliant,” Rose said.
They combined for nine birdies in 14 holes, steamrolling a fatigued Spieth-Reed pairing and handing the young American duo its first loss in Ryder Cup play (3-1-1). Stenson and Rose, meanwhile, improved to 4-1 together.
“It makes it sweeter when you beat the guys you lost to in the morning,” Stenson said.
Even more importantly, it set the table for what was a stirring comeback by the visitors. After getting swept in the opening session for the first time in 41 years, on foreign soil and in a format that typically favors the Americans, the Euros rolled to three convincing fourball wins – none more so than the Stenson-Rose thrashing – to cut their deficit in half. The Europeans trail, 5-3, but the momentum swing made it seem like even less.
What inspired the Europeans was seeing the blue on the board early, with Stenson and Rose’s advantage ballooning from 2 up to 5 up in a span of three back-nine holes against the Americans’ most successful pair.
Stenson and Rose are a formidable duo themselves, of course. They have similar styles, similar ball flights, even similar weaknesses. Though they are preeminent ball-strikers, capable of making extraordinary golf look easy, they’re also maddeningly streaky putters. In the morning, they couldn’t see (or hit) their line. In the afternoon, they couldn’t miss. As a result, they went 1-1 on the day.
Stenson noticed a change in the Americans as the afternoon wore on. “They seemed like they got a little bit tired toward the end,” he said, “and we didn’t.” That’s particularly good news for the European team, as Stenson’s health was a significant question mark heading into the week, after the 40-year-old revealed a few weeks ago that he’d suffered a small cartilage tear in his right knee, the same knee that required surgery last December. He assured Clarke that he’d be available to play five matches, if necessary, and walking only 30 of the possible 36 holes Friday should make Clarke’s decision even easier.
“Strong like bull,” Rose said, slapping his teammate on the shoulder.
And dangerous at the top, too.