The opening two days, played in a pairs format, are about teamwork. Much better in that respect yet again, this time at Le Golf National outside Paris, Europe lead 10-6 in the 42nd staging of this great event heading into the singles. The Americans need to equal the biggest last-day comeback to hang on to the trophy and, in the process, claim a first away victory since 1993.
Brookline in 1999 and, of course, Medinah as recently as 2012 – the Americans staged the fightback on the first of those occasions before Europe emulated the feat – should serve as reminders that there’s still life in this tussle. That message will certainly be hammered home to his players by Thomas Bjorn, the home captain. Europe, though, are on the cusp of making a claim in the build up by one American scribe about the event being on the “verge of irrelevancy” due to the US being set to embark on a “decade-plus of blowouts” look utterly absurd.
He clearly underestimated the likes of Tommy Fleetwood, last year’s Race to Dubai winner, and Francesco Molinari, the Open champion. They’ve joined forces to win four matches out of four on the first two days – the first European pair to achieve that fantastic feat in the transatlantic tussle. Both now have a chance of emulating Larry Nelson, the only player to have claimed a full five points since the current format was introduced in 1979, the year the American did the trick at The Greenbrier. Fleetwood has his opportunity as a rookie. Incredible.
They’ve been dubbed both “Moliwood” and “Tomminari” after gelling brilliantly for Bjorn. Three of those victories came against Tiger Woods and two against Patrick Reed. So far, there has been no sign of “Captain America” on this occasion. As for Woods, the Ryder Cup continues to be downright miserable. In seven previous matches, he’d only been on one winning side. Another loss looks to be beckoning. His personal record is just dire. That’s 20 defeats now for the greatest player of his generation in 36 games, 19 of which have come in pairs play.
Woods will have to help deliver eight points in the 12 singles on the last day if the Americans are to take the trophy back across the Atlantic. In contrast, Europe only need 4.5 points to make home advantage count in the event for the sixth time in the last seven matches. That, clearly, is more important than those rankings – all 12 of the players are currently inside the world’s top 25 – and reputations.
Superior knowledge of this golf course, which has hosted the French Open for the last 17 years, has been a factor in how the match stands. As has it being set up to punish wayward shots, preventing the US long-hitters to hit drivers with gay abandon. All the credit, though, has to go to the European players for the way they have risen to this challenge, re-writing the record books in the process.
Friday’s second session was the first time Europe had recorded a 4-0 whitewash in the foursomes, having earlier recorded a crucial win in the last of the fourballs through Fleetwood and Moliari. Building on that in the morning fourballs on the second day, they then triumphed in the first three games on day two. Eight points in a row constituted the hottest streak in this event. It became 10 points out of 11 when they also came out on top in the first two afternoon matches to finish before the US hit back to share that session.
Bjorn has little to worry about, really, heading into those head-to-head encounters. His fellow Dane, Thorbjorn Olesen, will be making his first appearance since a first-morning defeat in the company of Rory McIlroy. Ten others – Jon Rahm is the other exception – in the team, though, have all tasted success so far. In contrast, Woods, Reed, Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson, who didn’t feature at all on the second day, have contributed zilch for the Americans and all are playing poorly.
Trailing 5-3 overnight and hurting from that clean sweep in the second session, the Americans were looking for a first start in the fourballs. It never materialised. At one point, in fact, Europe were up in all four matches again. There has never been a double whitewash and that is still the case. A 3-1 win, though, did very nicely indeed for the home team.
McIlroy and Sergio Garcia led the way. McIlroy had a bit of his mojo back as he made three birdies in the first eight holes. Continuing to vindicate his pick, Garcia enjoyed rolling in a birdie putt for a 2 at the short 11th. Even better, though, was the 25-footer he converted at the 17th to slam the door shut on Tony Finau and Brooks Koepka as they threatened to pull off a fightback by winning three holes in a row.
Given a second chance by Bjorn after losing first time out, Paul Casey and Tyrell Hatton repaid that faith by producing the best golf of the morning. Helped by Casey, back on this stage for the first time in a decade, bursting out of the blocks with five birdies in the first six holes – three of them were hole winners – they were nine-under for 16 holes in beating Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler. Hatton, another of the five rookies, then took over with three birdies in the middle of the round, including a 2 to win the eighth, before his partner came back in to birdie the par-5 14th.
Jim Furyk, the US captain, went again with Woods and Reed, the Masters champion, despite seeing them cuffed by Fleetwood and Molinari 24 hours earlier. He must have been gutted about them ending up in a rematch. Fleetwood got the European duo off and running on this occasion before Molinari took over by hitting his tee shot close at the 11th for the first of three birdies on the trot. Molinari doesn’t normally show much emotion on the golf course but even he found himself caught up in the occasion, cupping his ear to try and raise the noise level in the crowd at one point.
The rot was stopped for the Americans by Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas as they claimed the anchor match against Poulter and Jon Rahm, but it was still a profitable morning for Europe as they moved 8-4 ahead, equalling the largest lead after three sessions since the current format for the event was introduced in 1979.
Sent out in the same spot in the afternoon, Spieth and Thomas did the business again for Furyk, beating Poulter and McIlroy, who thumphed his chest in a gesture to a fan after holing a putt early on but had little success with the flatstick thereafter. A third point saw Spieth and Thomas become just the fourth US pairing to achieve that haul since it became Europe versus the US. If the visitors do pull off that comeback, expect that pair to be at the heart of it.
While Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson also won in that penultimate session, there was never really any danger of them closing that gap. The writing was on the wall for Woods, paired with Bryson DeChambeau on this occasion, after Fleetwood and Molinari opened with a birdie. They were five up at the turn and, although their opponents rallied with back-to-back birdies at the tenth and 11th, there was no way back.
In the pivotal match – the one at the top of the order – Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, both of whom were rested in the morning, were down early on to Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler. Just like Gleneagles four years ago, though, and also on the opening day here, Rose and Stenson clicked into gear. Stenson, ice cool as ever, holed a seven-footer for a crucial half at the 16th after the Americans had won the previous hole to get back within striking distance. The Swede then converted a seven-foot par putt at the next.
So far, so good for Europe.