Sometimes, matchplay isn’t so much about knowing how to hit a putt as when to concede one. This was the moral of the Ryder Cup’s opening match, which saw the Spanish duo of Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia become inspired after a backfiring instance of American “mind games”.
On the sixth hole Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas declined to give the Europeans the benefit of the doubt on an 18-inch tiddler. The only result was to fire up the Spanish engine, which kicked in with match-turning birdies on the next two holes.
The putt in question was so short that everyone around the green had already turned away and begun the march to the seventh tee. When the gallery realised that it was not going to be given, they let out an exhalation of surprise, building into a delighted “Ooooo”.
After a short moment of apparent disbelief, Garcia stepped up and popped the ball in the hole, and Rahm then seemed to have something to say as the players walked off. On the bridge overlooking the hole, European captain Padraig Harrington seemed unamused. But this was a matter of etiquette rather than true sporting concern, as Harrington and everyone else knew that Garcia could scarcely miss.
“It’s all part of the Ryder Cup, right?” said Rahm after the Spanish pair had concluded a 3&1 victory. “It’s a lot of times where people are going to try to play mind games. In my case, [when] I have a foot and a half to tie or win holes, I will make it, honestly. It’s always a bonus to see the ball go in the hole, and I feel like it did put a bit of an extra thought in our mind.
“I feel like that’s when it got into gear,” added Rahm. “I started really well after that and played nearly flawless golf. It’s a lot easier when you have a robot [Garcia] off the tee with the irons, so all I had to do was help him make a few putts and not get in his way.”
The European ship is at its best with a Spanish mainstay. No partnership has ever scored as many Ryder Cup points as Seve Ballesteros and Jose Olazabal, who were virtually unbeatable through the late 1980s and early 1990s. Has Harrington now found a worthy pair of successors?
It was one of the surprises of Paris three years ago that Thomas Bjorn never placed Rahm and Garcia in harness. Admittedly, Rahm was a very different player at the time: a talented but temperamental rookie who had yet to figure out his full potential. But there were a few murmurs about this minor omission, even if Europe’s seven-point winning margin was enough to keep them sotto voce.
Against the intimidating pairing of Spieth and Thomas – the one American team to thrive in 2018 – Rahm and Garcia complemented each other like chinos and moccasins. Or perhaps that should be doublet and hose, given Rahm’s resemblance to a young Henry VIII.
They made six birdies and only a single bogey, relying primarily on Garcia to fire the ball close with his iron play and Rahm to drain a series of putts. Coming in as the only European in the world’s top 10 – or even top 13 – Rahm was under extreme pressure to hold Harrington’s men together, and he handled the situation with a veteran’s aplomb. At just 27, he already feels like a father figure for the team.
Garcia has been at this lark much longer, having turned 41 at the start of the year. In Paris, he had already established himself as the leading points scorer in Ryder Cup history – a tally he has now extended to 26.5. By winning on Friday, he has also matched another record: Nick Faldo’s 23 victories.
In the process, he demonstrated that forty-somethings can do the business this weekend. Should Harrington’s men fail, it will not be because of his experience-heavy selection as much as the power of America’s youth.
As it happens, this was the only foursomes match not to feature one of the home team’s devastating rookies. Spieth and Thomas didn’t play badly, by any means, finishing three under in their own right. And Spieth produced the shot of the morning on the 17th.
Hacking his wedge at a ball stuck waist-high in a vertical bank of vegetation, he threw himself so far off balance that he staggered backwards in the process and careered 25 paces downhill, rushing dangerously past a bunker and almost ending up in Lake Michigan. “Once I started moving,” he said later, “I was like, ‘I’ve got to keep moving until I find a flat spot.’”
The ball, miraculously, stopped just nine feet from the hole. It was the kind of trick shot you might pull off only a couple of times in a career. Garcia said afterwards that he had applauded Spieth’s wizardry with the 52-degree wedge, before adding that he had been seriously concerned. “I was truly afraid for him because of those wood logs that are there, and it was very close to the wall. So I was hoping that he wouldn’t hurt himself, but he hit an unbelievable shot.”
In an anti-climactic finish, Thomas still missed the ensuing putt, thus concluding the contest. It was that sort of frustrating day for this experienced and reliable team. Still, they were realistic afterwards and commended the quality of the Spaniards’ play.
“Sometimes you run into a buzzsaw,” said Spieth. In truth, this particular buzzsaw might never have started if the Americans hadn’t yanked its chain.