Arnold Palmer the inspiration as America take early lead

Team USA's Patrick Reed celebrat evictory over  Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose during the first day  at Hazeltine. Picture: Thomas J. Russo

Team USA's Patrick Reed celebrat evictory over Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose during the first day at Hazeltine. Picture: Thomas J. Russo

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It was too early – way too early – for Phil Mickelson to be looking smug. Nonetheless, he was entitled to be wearing a smile. It had been put there by a combination of American excellence and European ineptitude.

That cocktail resulted in the opening session of the 41st Ryder Cup ending in a 4-0 whitewash for Team USA. Guess what? The last time that happened, back in 1975 at Laurel Valley, Arnold Palmer was the home captain. To mark his passing away at the start of this week, Palmer’s golf bag from that match stood on the first tee at Hazeltine. Boy, did it inspire the Americans.

At Gleneagles two years ago, they lost the foursomes 7-1. It was too big a handicap for Tom Watson’s team to overcome in either the fourballs or singles. Historically, Europe have frequently enjoyed more success in the alternate shot format.

So, had the task force set up in the wake of Mickelson, pictured right, criticising Watson in the aftermath of a five-point defeat at Gleneagles somehow come up with a magic formula to make this happen? No, according to Mickelson.

“Although it’s accurate,” said the 11-time Ryder Cup player of the Americans having struggled with foursomes in this event, “in the Presidents Cup it’s our best format. We dominate the foursomes. So there’s no real great explanation. But I think we all sensed and had a good feeling heading into today that the morning was going to go well. We didn’t know it would go that well, but we knew we were going to have a good morning. And, gosh, the guys just played some incredible golf. There were some really spectacular shots hit and it was just fun to be part of that.”

The win for Mickelson and Fowler over Rory McIlroy and Andy Sullivan was very sweet indeed for both Americans. For Mickelson, it was exactly what the doctor ordered after his broadside at Watson after the last match, as well as the heavy input he’d had into Team USA’s preparation for an attempt to stop its Ryder Cup rot. Three defeats in a row and eight in the last ten had been hard 
to swallow, especially for a man involved in all of those encounters.

“I felt more pressure heading into today’s matches,” admitted Mickelson. “Given the build-up over the last couple of years, the criticism, the comments, what have you, the pressure was certainly as great or greater than I’ve ever felt. I could have copped out and asked to sit. But that would have been a total weak move. I wanted to get out there. I enjoy that pressure.”

In truth, it wasn’t a vintage performance by Mickelson. He carved one drive out of bounds at the seventh and was miles left with another one at the 16th. “I played tight,” he said. “This guy [turning to Fowler] loosened me up. That’s why I wanted him as my partner. He knows what to say and when to say it. He got some of my best golf out of me there in the end. Some of the iron shots down the stretch, a lot of it was due to things that he said to get me in the right frame of mind.”

For Fowler, it was a welcome first-ever Ryder Cup point. In eight previous outings in the biennial event, the best he’d managed was a halve, delivering that twice on his debut at Celtic Manor then three times at Gleneagles. Having been handed one of Davis Love’s wild card picks ahead of other candidates, notably two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, there was also pressure on Fowler coming in here. In fairness to the 2015 Scottish Open champion, he certainly delivered at the first time 
of asking.

“Getting off to a good start is what we all wanted and the captain obviously put us out there to do that,” said Fowler. “When I saw the pairings, I knew it was going to be tough. I knew that Phil and I were going to have a tough match and I knew the rest of the boys were not going to get it easy. It was hard to say which side was going to have the better chance to come out on top.”

Referring to the role played by Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed as they led the way in putting red up on the scoreboards with an eye-catching victory over Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose in the top match, he added: “Having 
Jordan and Patrick out there in front definitely gave the rest of the groups a little bit confidence and confidence breeds momentum. It was nice that we were able to join the group at the end by getting the match turned around and adding that fourth point.”

Palmer’s funeral was held in his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, on Thursday. Shortly after the ceremony when his ashes were being scattered at Latrobe Country Club, a perfect rainbow appeared above it. The man who had such a massive impact on golf, but the American game in particular, would certainly have shared Mickelson’s smile after only the third opening series whitewash in the event, the other one having been in 1947, when Ben Hogan was the home captain in Portland. Despite the anti-American comments made by Danny Willett’s brother in the build-up to the event, the opening exchanges were played in pretty much the same way as recent Ryder Cups. Yes, there was the odd shout or cheer following a wayward European shot or missed putt that was perhaps unneeded, but, in the main, an army of American fans, a huge proportion of them wearing something sporting stars and stripes, were more interested in getting behind their players.

“The fans were very supportive of the United States and not antagonistic of our opponent – it really had the spirit of what the Ryder Cup is about,” observed Mickelson. “Although it could very well be in Arnold’s memory and it is very consistent with the way he conducted his life, the people here in Minnesota have been like that every year we’ve played here going back to the PGA in ’02 and I even remember playing in the ’91 US Open.”

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