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Europeans surge ahead in Ryder Cup

2014 Ryder Cup
Europe’s Justin Rose celebrates putting on the 11th green during the foursomes match on the first day of the 40th Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland.
(Scott Heppell / Associated Press)

— Morning dawned clear and blue on the first day of the Ryder Cup and, for a few hours at least, the prospects for the U.S. team appeared equally sunny.

But after the Americans dashed to an early lead, the skies darkened and the Europeans reasserted themselves as the favorites at Gleneagles.

If their 5-3 lead by day’s end was not entirely convincing, the way they achieved it was.

The Europeans won three foursomes matches and tied the fourth with dazzling shots from some of their biggest names. Just as impressive, they got solid performances from players further down the list.

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“Obviously the States were looking strong,” Henrik Stenson said. “But we came back and had a great session.”

Or, as American player Jimmy Walker summed up the day: “Exciting, exhilarating, heartbreaking, excruciating.”

Blue skies weren’t the only surprise at the start of Friday. Despite the fans who swarmed the course 10-deep in places — singing, waving flags, chanting for Europe — the U.S. burst out of the blocks with help from three rookies.

Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed seemed unfazed by the hostile environment as they cruised past Ian Poulter and Stephen Gallacher in a fourball match. Walker, also a newcomer, joined Rickie Fowler to halve with Martin Kaymer and Thomas Bjorn.

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One more thing helped the Americans build a 2 1/2 -1 1/2 lead: They were able to defeat not only Poulter — who always seems to play his best golf at the Ryder Cup — but also Europe’s marquee pairing of Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia.

Spieth called it “definitely a psychological blow.”

Or perhaps not.

Heading into a slate of foursomes after lunchtime, U.S. captain Tom Watson chose to bench Spieth and Reed, opting for a more veteran lineup. The duo was momentarily angry and Watson later acknowledged to reporters: “Obviously, you’re going to second-guess me on that decision.”

The Europeans, who have won seven of the last nine Ryder Cups, seemed more assured as they returned to the course and quickly took the lead in all four matches.

Stenson and Justin Rose showed that they will be a formidable pair this weekend, following a morning win with a victory over Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson.

“Yeah, it was a great day at the office,” Stenson said. “I felt comfortable with Justin by my side and we played even better in the afternoon.”

Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell stepped in capably. At the same time, the American duo of Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley — who had won their first match of the day — appeared to run out of steam.

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These shifting fortunes supported the notion that the Europeans have a deeper, more talented squad. The conditions at Gleneagles might also favor them.

Though the manicured course would suit a PGA Tour event, the Americans found the greens relatively slow and tricky to read. A cold, gusting wind blowing across fairways had them stuffing their hands in their pockets between shots.

Not that anyone was blaming the weather.

“We were outplayed,” Watson said. “I know that.”

Such is the Europeans’ depth that their captain, Paul McGinley, regretted not finding a spot for the young Victor Dubuisson in Saturday’s early fourball matches. On the other side, Watson was looking for answers.

Spieth and Reed will remain together, as will Walker and Fowler. Jim Furyk will play with Hunter Mahan, and Bubba Watson — paired with a seemingly rattled Webb Simpson on Friday — gets Matt Kuchar.

Notably, Mickelson will take the morning off.

Regardless of the configuration, the underdog Americans walked away from Friday knowing they must raise their level of play.

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“We’ve still got 20 points to play,” Bradley said. “We’re going to fight.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton


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