Americans seize early lead in Ryder Cup

MEDINAH, Ill. — Walking off the 17th tee with their arms over the other’s shoulder, Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson didn’t need to say a word. They wouldn’t have been able to hear anything anyway, the deafening noise capable of carrying them to the green, where they would win yet another match.

Say hello to America’s new “It” couple, at least the Ryder Cup version.

Separated in age by 16 years, Bradley and Mickelson appear to have a cosmic connection on the golf course, being paired twice on the first day of the 39th Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club, as many expected. Then they went out and did the unexpected, taking down a European team that had never lost, plus another that featured the world’s best player.

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With one more majestic swing at the par-3 17th on Friday afternoon, Mickelson’s ball settled 2 feet from the hole, a conceded birdie that capped a 2-and-1 four-ball victory over the Northern Ireland duo of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. It was part of an afternoon birdie blitzkrieg by the Americans — and European rookie Nicolas Colsaerts — turning a 2-2 tie after the morning’s alternate-shot matches into a 5-3 US lead.

Certainly not commanding, but a good start to the three-day festivities.

“It could be the best day of my life,” said Bradley, the Vermont native and Hopkinton (Mass.) High School graduate who has had his share of good ones on the golf course the last two years. “We were running down the fairway, we had our arms around each other, we were screaming. It was like a Patriots game out there.

“I’m just having such a blast playing with Phil. Love every second of it.”

It showed. Bradley displayed no nerves and plenty of emotion in his Ryder Cup debut, asking the partisan galleries for more noise throughout the day and bringing out his trademark clenched teeth/fist pump/kick whenever he’d make a key putt, of which there were many.

If there’s a prototypical Ryder Cup player, Bradley seems straight out of central casting. He’s intense, competitive, energetic, passionate, and talented.

“He’s got such great, positive energy,” said Mickelson, who won two Ryder Cup matches on the same day for the first time. “When we were walking down the first hole, and I’m 50 yards ahead of our playing partner in the middle of the fairway with a little wedge, I just knew that over the course of 18 holes, if you keep giving me wedges in the fairway, and having Keegan putt it, we are going to be really tough to beat. I just think that the odds are going to be in our favor.”

Bradley played to the crowd, too. While Mickelson was about to hit his approach shot to the par-4 15th hole in the morning match, Bradley ran over to the gallery rope left of the fairway, where six fans had unfurled a large US flag. He gave high-fives to all, then holed a long birdie putt up on the green, the final stroke in a 4-and-3 win over Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald.

How impressive was the win? It marked the first time Garcia (8-0-1) or Donald (6-0-0) had lost a Ryder Cup foursomes match; they were 4-0 when paired together.

“Keegan played great. Phil is a smart guy, he picks good partners,” said US captain Davis Love, who will send the two back out on Saturday morning in another foursomes match against Donald and Lee Westwood. “Keegan was fired up. He hit the ball extremely long today. [Medinah] looked like it was built for him.”

As host captain, Love can set up the golf course to suit his team’s strengths. He wanted very little rough, which wouldn’t penalize his long-hitting team if they sprayed it off the tee and would still allow for birdie opportunities.

Case in point: Friday afternoon’s matches. The eight US players combined to make a whopping 35 birdies, winning three of the four matches after building big leads early.

Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, who had the morning off, came out firing in the first match, making 10 birdies in 14 holes and rolling to a 5-and-4 win over Paul Lawrie and Peter Hanson. They were 6 up after eight holes.

The other US team that had Friday morning off, Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar, also started quickly. Kuchar birdied four straight holes, starting at No. 4, as he and Johnson beat Justin Rose and Martin Kaymer, 3 and 2.

The day’s most impressive performance came from Colsaerts, a 29-year-old from Belgium playing in his first Ryder Cup match. Against Tiger Woods, no less. No matter. Paired with Westwood, Colsaerts beat Woods and Stricker on his own, with eight birdies, and an eagle at the par-5 10th. A par on No. 18, though, was good enough for a 1-up victory, but only after Woods missed a birdie try that would have halved the match.

“I don’t know what to say. When you’re a kid you dream about playing in this tournament,” Colsaerts said. “It felt wonderful to be able to produce and deliver on such a big stage with a lot of eyes on you and this unbelievable atmosphere.”

Colsaerts simply prevented the Europeans from getting blanked in the afternoon, but it left them trailing after the first day by at least 2 points for the first time since 2008.

A big reason was Bradley, who seems built for this kind of event, and was definitely in his element his first time out. He even described a birdie in his afternoon match as a New England sports fan might.

“It did feel like a Tom Brady touchdown pass,” Bradley said. “I think that this type of format and this type of energy, having these guys on my team, just makes it so exciting. I just enjoy that moment so much. It was an unbelievable day.”