- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2008

LOUISVILLE, Ky. | Ending nearly a decade of futility in the biennial event, the United States‘ underdog roster took Europe behind the proverbial woodshed on the opening day of the 37th Ryder Cup.

Buoyed by a pair of memorable rallies from the team’s marquee marriage of Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim, the United States won both opening-day sessions at a Ryder Cup for the first time since 1979, building a 5 1/2-2 1/2 lead at Valhalla Golf Club.

“We’re in a good place,” U.S. captain Paul Azinger said. “Who would have thought? We’re just a blue-collar bunch, and my guys are manning up, every one of them.”

Mickelson, who looked different than the player who staggered through the last two Ryder Cups with a 1-7-1 record, sure did. Perhaps Tiger Woods’ absence helped Mickelson emerge from his Ryder Cup doldrums. Perhaps the energy and passion oozing from his 23-year-old partner helped jolt Mickelson into form. Whatever the reason, the world’s No. 2 behaved more like a leader than a liability at the head of the U.S. ranks.

“Being 3 down in both matches, I felt like we played with a lot of heart and a lot of emotion to get a halve and a point,” Mickelson said. “I love playing with [Kim]. He has a lot of talent, a lot of game. It was fun for me to get that youthful exuberance today. It’s infectious.”

In the morning foursomes, Mickelson and Kim authored one of four U.S. comebacks. They battled from 3 down with six holes to play against Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson to earn a halve when Harrington missed a 14-footer for birdie on the closing par 5. Mickelson and Kim then teamed to post 11 birdies in a 2-up victory over Harrington and Graeme McDowell.

“I think we are going to be pretty tough to beat,” Kim said. “We are having a great time out there, and when you’re having a great time, you’re going to play good golf.”

Although Mickelson and Kim might have defined the U.S. charge, they weren’t the team’s only heroes.

Texas residents Justin Leonard and rookie Hunter Mahan became the first U.S. tandem to record two opening-day victories since 1993 (Corey Pavin and Lanny Wadkins), ousting Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson 3 and 2 in the morning foursomes. They also carved a rare Ryder Cup black mark beside Sergio Garcia’s name in the afternoon four-balls (4 and 3 over Garcia and Miguel A. Jimenez).

The victories marked the first full points earned by Leonard, who clinched America’s last Ryder Cup victory with his birdie bomb in Brookline, Mass., in 1999.

Even Kentucky natives Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes jumped into the scoring column, though not in the fashion anticipated by the massive galleries. Perry and Holmes butchered the 18th in their respective pairings to give Europe a pair of halves in what easily could have been 6 1/2-1 1/2 whitewash. Holding 1-up leads in the anchor matches of both sessions, both Perry and Holmes blocked their drives into the water at the 18th to gift Europe a pair of 11th-hour pardons.

But two suspect finishes did little to cloud the United States’ day. And perhaps as crucial as locating its own stalwarts, the Americans also defrocked Europe’s coat of invincibility. Europe’s Ryder Cup titan trio of Garcia, Harrington and Lee Westwood finished the day with a combined mark of 0-2-4.

Garcia came to Louisville with the best Ryder Cup record in history (14-4-2) and a 13-1-2 mark in the partnership formats. Harrington entered the event boasting victories in three of the last six major championships. And Westwood arrived as the roster’s most experienced player with a 14-8-3 Ryder Cup record on his resume in five appearances.

“We’ve had a tough day,” European captain Nick Faldo said. “We’ve lost a few points, but we haven’t lost any spirit.”

The United States is back after sleepwalking though the better part of the last six Ryder Cups. They are playing with passion, and the home galleries are galvanized. And the Europeans looked stunned by the United States’ display of solidarity and toughness. Only one team now has the chance to administer the Ryder Cup beatings that have become so familiar. And for the first time in a long time it isn’t the side from the other side of the great salty.

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