MEDINAH – Keegan Bradley made Friday at the Ryder Cup feel like the best day of his life, and it wasn’t too shabby for the rest of the Americans.
Bradley led a strong performance by rookies on both teams at Medinah by teaming with Phil Mickelson for two wins against Europe’s best two partnerships. Even with Tiger Woods getting shutout on opening day for the fourth time, the United States took a big step toward regaining the cup by taking a 5-3 lead.
Leading the way was Bradley, the former PGA champion whom Mickelson took under his wing last year for a series of money games at the majors to prepare the New England kid for moments like this. And did he ever deliver.
“This is literally what I’ve dreamt about since I was a little kid,” Bradley said. “I got to do it next to my idol all day.”
Bradley holed a 25-foot birdie putt in morning foursomes to hand Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia their first loss ever in Ryder Cup foursomes. Next up were Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, and the Americans won the first three holes. Mickelson wasn’t there only for support. Right when Europe was trying to rally, the four-time major champion closed it out with a 7-iron to 2 feet that was conceded for birdie.
It was a day Bradley didn’t want to end.
“Oh, baby, I wish we could go 36 more,” Bradley said.
He wasn’t the only rookie to shine on a mild day in Medinah. Nicolas Colsaerts, the 29-year-old from Belgium, helped Europe avoid getting shutout in afternoon fourballs by single-handedly taking down Woods and Steve Stricker.
Colsaerts made eight birdies and an eagle – a 10-under-par 62 if he was keeping score on his own. He teamed with Lee Westwood, who was just along for this amazing ride for a 1-up victory that ended 11 hours of enormous cheers and plenty of American red on the leaderboard.
“I don’t think there has ever been a better debut than that,” Westwood said.
Woods and Stricker also lost to Ian Poulter and Justin Rose in morning foursomes, making this the fourth time in the seven Ryder Cups that Woods has played that he lost both matches on the opening day.
There was nothing Woods could do against Colsaerts, the biggest hitter in Europe who isn’t too bad with the putter, either.
“Nicolas probably had one of the greatest putting rounds I’ve ever seen,” Woods said, high praise coming from a 14-time major champion.
Woods turned in a mixed performance. He missed a 6-foot birdie putt on the 15th to fall 2 down, and then came back with a bending, 25-foot birdie putt on the 16th and a shot into 4 feet on the 17th that looked as if it might square the match. Instead, Colsaerts rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt for a halve. Woods had a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th to halve the match, only it caught the left lip.
“We ran into a guy who made everything today,” Woods said. “I don’t know what he shot. He was like 7 under through 10. I quit counting after that.”
Both captains made sure all 12 of their players got into the game early, though European captain Jose Maria Olazabal set himself up for second-guessing when he sat out Donald, Garcia and Poulter for the afternoon matches. They have a combined 31-13-5 record in the Ryder Cup.
Mickelson set an American record by playing in his ninth Ryder Cup, and he won his opening two matches for the first time in his career.
Mickelson came up with some big putts and amazing shots, and the 42-year-old felt about 10 years younger playing alongside Bradley.
“It could be the best day of my life,” Bradley said.
Europe has won six of the last eight times in the Ryder Cup, and it wasn’t about to hang its head after one day. It was leading all four of the opening matches early Friday under a gloomy sky. The sun came out, and the Americans came to life.
“There’s a long way to go in this tournament,” Rose said. “There’s ebbs and flows. Obviously, there’s momentum for the U.S. team right now, but that could all swing back in our favor tomorrow.”
Even so, the Americans headed to their team room full of confidence. It won five of eight matches without getting a point from Woods, and they picked up a little extra momentum when Mickelson and Bradley took down McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world.
The Ryder Cup again lived up to its billing as the most exciting tournament in golf with relentless action, huge swings in momentum and endless cheers.
Bubba Watson asked the crowd to keep chanting and cheering when he stepped to the tee for his afternoon fourballs with Webb Simpson, and the Masters champion belted his drive down the middle, raising his driver to play to the crowd. Then, the Americans did a number of Paul Lawrie and Peter Hanson, going 6 up through eight holes and closing them out on the 14th hole.
Matt Kuchar ran off four straight birdies as he and Dustin Johnson built an early lead against Rose and Martin Kaymer.
The only rookie who didn’t deliver a point was FedEx Cup champion Brandt Snedeker, though it wasn’t from a lack of effort. Snedeker and Furyk were 3 down through 12 holes against McIlroy and McDowell in the morning when they put together a furious rally, with Furyk carrying the bulk of the load. They squared the match going to the 18th when Snedeker hit a drive toward the hospitality tents well right of the fairway, and Furyk couldn’t convert a 20-foot par putt to halve the match.
But it was a sign of the American fight.
Bradley turned into a rock star at Medinah, especially on the par-3 13th, perhaps the toughest tee shot because it was long and into the wind, requiring a hybrid. He hit it to 15 feet left of the flag, and as the crowd chanted, “USA! USA!” Bradley nodded at them repeatedly.
Mickelson, who first played in these matches in 1995, smiled and gently patted him on the back to let him soak up the moment. Lefty then holed the birdie putt for a 2-up lead, and Garcia missed a 3 1/2-foot par putt on the next hole. It was the Spaniard’s first loss in 10 foursomes matches dating to 1999.
Bradley was so into the moment that his focus was broken walking up the 15th hole when he spotted fans holding a large American flag on the left side of the gallery. He jogged over to them for high-fives, waited for Mickelson to play a wedge into the green, and then holed the 25-foot birdie putt.
His caddie, Steve Hale, swung the flagstick around like a baseball bat until Mickelson’s caddie reminded him to put it in the hole for Donald to play a bunker shot.
“There’s a simple reason why Keegan is perfect for the Ryder Cup,” Mickelson said. “The more pressure the situation, the better he plays, the better he sees the shot, the better he focuses. And the better the result. As a player, you feel more pressure and intensity during these matches than you do at any other event.
“And that’s when he’s at his best.”
Jason Dufner, another American rookie, actually showed some emotion with a tiny fist pump when his 15-foot birdie putt on the ninth stopped next to the cup, then dropped in the left side. Dufner made birdie on the next hole for a foursomes win with Zach Johnson over Westwood and Francesco Molinari.
Poulter holed a bunker shot, a long birdie putt and a clutch par putt from 7 feet on the 16th hole that carried he and Rose to victory over Woods and Stricker. Poulter has lost only three times in 12 matches in his Ryder Cup career. Two of those had been to Woods.
“I never wanted to have another one,” Poulter said.
Next up is another long day of foursomes and fourballs, a chance for Europe to get back in the game going into the Sunday singles.
Love could not have asked for a better start, particularly from his rookies — and especially from Bradley.
“I felt young,” Mickelson said. “And it felt great.”