CHASKA, Minn. — The Europeans were surging and a raucous crowd at Hazeltine National Golf Club had pretty much been silenced when a bald eagle circled over the tee box on the par-3 13th.
Former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw was one of the few who noticed.
“It’s an omen,” Crenshaw said. “It’s got to be an omen.”
Turned out it wasn’t, when Henrik Stenson made a tap-in for birdie a few moments later to all but clinch one match for the Europeans. Certainly wasn’t a half-hour later when Thomas Pieters rolled in a 15-footer on the same green to do the same in another match.
You couldn’t blame Crenshaw for hoping for some kind of sign. He’s the guy, after all, who wagged a finger at the media and said he had a feeling it wasn’t over the night before the U.S. stormed back from four points down to win the cup in 1999.
But on an afternoon where the Americans could have blown this Ryder Cup wide open, the opposite happened. After losing all four morning foursomes matches, Europe rebounded to win three of the four afternoon four balls and suddenly the game was on.
Worse yet, Rory McIlroy was taking bows at the end — an image that surely won’t be forgotten by the American team.
Never has a 5-3 lead seemed so empty. Never has a day that begun with such promise ended so flat.
Thousands of fans didn’t even stick around to watch McIlroy take a couple of exaggerated bows to the grandstands after finishing off the final match of the day with an eagle putt on the 16th hole. They had seen enough, streaming for the exits after a long day that began with chants of “USA! USA!” and ended with European fans singing “Ole, Ole, Ole.”
The team that captain Davis Love III called the greatest ever last week looked like it for about four hours, sweeping the morning matches for the first time in four decades. Maybe it was something they had for lunch, but they looked quite ordinary afterward.
Giddy after the morning sweep, they had to search for something positive to take into dinner after not making it past the 16th hole in three of four afternoon matches.
“A lead is a lead,” said Ryan Moore after he and J.B. Holmes were beaten by the Spanish pairing of Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera Bello. “That’s where you want to be. You want to be on the right side of it. We keep ourselves on the right side of it all week, we’ll be in good shape.”
That may be true, but a look at the U.S.-European history in the Ryder Cup suggests otherwise. Love knows that well enough because he was the captain four years ago when the Americans led both days before collapsing in the Sunday singles for yet another loss to the Europeans.
All the planning by Love and Phil Mickelson — and all the cheerleading from the likes of Tiger Woods and Bubba Watson — seemed to work in the morning in front of some 50,000 fans who cheered themselves hoarse as the American teams swept to easy wins in the alternate shot format.
By the afternoon, though, the momentum was suddenly gone as Crenshaw looked for an omen. Fans who had little to cheer for on the American side were reduced for cheering when the Europeans missed putts or when McIlroy hit it in the water on 13.
Love, meanwhile, was trying to say something positive about it all.
“I thought we came out and competed real well,” he said. “Even the guys that were kind of run over, buzz-sawed, still hung in there and kept making birdies and got these guys as far as they could.”
Left unsaid is that two of those teams that were buzz-sawed in the afternoon included Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, the players the U.S. needs to come through to win the Cup for the first time since 2008. Both were impressive in the morning, but both struggled badly in the better ball matches, where the U.S. traditionally has done best.
Spieth and Patrick Reed pretty much gave away their match on the 12th hole when Spieth hit a pop-up out of a fairway bunker into the water and Reed was buried deep in the trees.
“Patrick, be safe. I’m in the water,” Spieth called out to Reed, who was trying to figure out a way to navigate through the trees.
The two will be out again in the morning Saturday against Garcia and Cabrera Bello, while McIlroy and Pieters will lead off against Mickelson and Rickie Fowler.
Those matches would be crucial on any Saturday in the Ryder Cup. They might be even more important in one where the momentum seems to have tilted in Europe’s favor.
“Honestly,” McIlroy said, “I think we’re going to go into the dressing room and overnight feeling a little bit better than they are.”