CHASKA, Minn. — The United States had the lead. Rory McIlroy made sure that was all it had Friday in the Ryder Cup.
The American sweep of the opening session of matches at Hazeltine was all but forgotten when McIlroy rolled in a 20-foot eagle putt, took a bow on the 16th green and delivered a defiant message to the crowd and to the U.S. team desperate to win back the cup.
Europe isn’t going anywhere.
“I’m not fazed by anything that is said by the crowd,” McIlroy said. “And I’m not fazed by anything that the U.S. team throws at us.”
The Americans threw a haymaker with the first opening-session sweep in four decades. Europe battled back from that 4-0 deficit behind its best tandem, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose, and it’s best player. McIlroy buried the eagle putt, calmly bowed twice to the crowd and then punched the chilly Minnesota air with his fist.
U.S. captain Davis Love III at least could take consolation in a 5-3 lead, though the Americans wasted a chance to put Europe in a big hole.
“It’s frustrating not to come out a little bit more ahead,” Love said.
McIlroy had heard enough after some 10 hours before what he described as a hostile crowd. He and Thomas Pieters never trailed against the previously undefeated tandem of Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar. McIlroy finished it with his eagle putt, and he a chance to give something back to the fans.
“Even before I hit that putt, I wanted to put an exclamation point on that session for us,” he said. “I actually thought about the celebration before I hit the putt. I knew it had a good chance of going in. … I just wanted everyone that’s watching out there to know how much this means to us, how much it means to me personally and obviously, us as a team. We’ve pulled it back a good bit. And we plan to pull it back even further going into tomorrow.”
Love could not have scripted a better start — a symbolic one, too.
To honor Arnold Palmer, who died Sunday, Ryder Cup officials placed on the first tee Palmer’s golf bag from when he was captain of the 1975 Ryder Cup team. Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed then set the tone with a 3-and-2 foursomes victory over Stenson and Rose, and the Americans delivered the first sweep of the opening session since that 1975 team at Laurel Valley.
Phil Mickelson, feeling more pressure than usual because of his influence on changes and on this team, also produced big shots. His wedge into 5 feet that Rickie Fowler converted was key in the Americans winning three straight holes for a 1-up victory over McIlroy and Andy Sullivan.
It just didn’t last.
The Americans still had the lead. Europe headed into the second day loaded with momentum.
“It would definitely say it’s better to have a small deficit with some momentum,” European captain Darren Clarke said. “Because we didn’t have much at lunchtime.”
Beaten for the first time, Rose and Stenson went right back out against Spieth and Reed and handed the American duo its first Ryder Cup loss. The Europeans made nine birdies in 13 holes for a 5-and-4 victory in an afternoon session in which the board was filled with European blue.
Sergio Garcia teamed with fellow Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello to dismantle J.B. Holmes and Ryan Moore. McIlroy and Pieters never trailed against Johnson and Kuchar, handing them their first loss in four Ryder Cup matches.
The lone American point in the afternoon came from Brandt Snedeker and Brooks Koepka, who had no trouble against Martin Kaymer and Danny Willett.
Willett had a little trouble with the crowd, especially when they lampooned him around Hazeltine with references to hot dogs and his brother, Pete, who had written a column in a British publication disparaging American galleries.
“It was anticipated,” Willett said. “Coming to America is a tough one, just like when the Americans come to Europe. They gave me a little bit more. I think it was exactly what we thought it was going to be.”
It wasn’t just directed at Willett, however.
The crowd was loud and boisterous from the opening tee shot in misty conditions. There were a few rude comments, not unusual in America for a Ryder Cup. Most striking was how quickly the crowd cheered bad shots for Europe. Typically, there is the slightest delay. Not on Friday. Sullivan, one of six rookies for Europe, hit his tee shot into the water on the 17th that put Europe 1 down and effectively ended the match. The crowd cheered before there was a ripple.
That’s what inspired McIlroy in the final match of the day.
The question for Saturday and another round of foursomes and fourballs matches is how the Americans respond.
“They had some fun this afternoon,” Love said. “We had some fun this morning. And we have two more fun days coming up. I’m sure we’ll see some more of that.”