This looked a United States team in utter disarray until the final seconds under a setting sun. How else to describe a record 9&7 trouncing for the world No 1 and reigning US PGA champion? How else to describe Zach Johnson advising Jordan Spieth on the 16th tee, moments before the Texan cracked his tee shot into a pond? Spieth and Justin Thomas were soon shaking hands having succumbed to defeat against Justin Rose and Robert MacIntyre.
At that point, Europe’s advantage was 10½ to 4½. “Can we play you every week?” chanted European fans. Johnson, the US captain, looked dazed and confused. This would look even better for Luke Donald and his European team if Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick could press home their lead over Patrick Cantlay and Wyndham Clark.
Instead, an inspired Cantlay offered the US at least faint hope. The man who has denied claims he is refusing to wear a hat as a form of protest against lack of payment for players in Ryder Cups finished birdie, birdie to earn the Americans a point and a 3-1 session win.
Cantlay floated a glorious iron to the par-three 17th. He converted for a four from 43ft at the last when a halved match looked odds-on. His teammates waved their caps in an apparent show of support. McIlroy, infuriated by the US celebrations, said the picture on the final green provided “fuel to the fire” for day three.
Europe need four points to regain the Ryder Cup. From a dozen singles jousts, with a number of the opposition visibly out-of-sorts, this should not be anything approaching a tall order. Nonetheless, Europe recovered from 10-6 down to perform the Miracle of Medinah in 2012.
Donald, who played in that contest, will not count any chickens even being five points ahead, but the captain was keen to emphasise positives as the dust settled on a frantic afternoon. “If you asked us to be at 10½ after two days we would take it,” he said. “We are in a great spot.”
A modicum of American optimism had arrived in the first two matches of the fourball session. The problem was, Europe already led 9½ to 2½ before these groups took to the course.
Sam Burns and Collin Morikawa eased to victory, 4&3 against Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Åberg. Max Homa, the best US performer, partnered Brian Harman for a 2&1 success over Tommy Fleetwood and Nicolai Højgaard.
Rose, Europe’s most senior player at 43, has been a fine mentor to the debutant MacIntyre. The Scot, who had endured putting troubles, strode forward when it mattered most with a two at the 13th to double Europe’s one-up lead. Thomas and Spieth were held off from there, ultimately by a 3&2 margin. “Today is everything I have dreamed of,” said a beaming MacIntyre. “I worked hard for this.”
Foursomes embarrassment arrived for Brooks Koepka and Scottie Scheffler. They were four down after four to Hovland and Åberg and they were eight down after 10.
The game finished on the 11th green, with 9&7 a Ryder Cup first. Scheffler was reduced to tears as he contemplated what had just transpired. A day earlier, Koepka had accused Jon Rahm of behaving like a child. Poetically, Koepka subsequently decided to play like one. There was no trash talking from the LIV rebel this time, who smartly shuffled off quietly.
Homa and Harman earned the US their only point of the foursomes, 4&2 over Shane Lowry and Sepp Straka. “They were unbelievably good,” said Straka. “Sometimes you just run into guys that are better than you.”
McIlroy and Fleetwood were involved in a fantastic match against Thomas and Spieth. Europe took the first three holes but were never likely to have it all their own way thereafter. After trading of holes, Europe were three up again when Fleetwood curled in an eagle putt at the 11th. The US won the 13th and 14th but Thomas found trouble from the 15th tee as Europe jabbed back.
A birdie three at the 16th left Europe one up with two to play; as Thomas flailed his tee shot right at the short 17th, the Europeans were able to close out the game. McIlroy’s clinching putt was from 13ft.
Donald resisted what must have been a strong temptation to give McIlroy the afternoon off. Instead, Rahm was the marquee name handed some rest time. The Masters champion had combined with Tyrrell Hatton to defeat Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, 2&1, in the foursomes. Schauffele’s interaction with Johnson as that match concluded hardly looked especially warm.
The nature of the US scene means moments such as this, possibly irrelevant ones, feel like they matter. The scale of European dominance at that point was such that Hatton was asked whether matching or even bettering the 19-9 win of the US at Whistling Straits two years ago was on his mind. “That is nice on a bit of paper but ultimately we are here to win,” he said. “Whatever the score is, if you win, then you are leaving extremely happy. So that’s our goal.”
This is a perfectly sensible approach. If Europe somehow implode from here, it will go down in sporting legend for all the wrong reasons. Rome wasn’t built in a day; five-point leads should not evaporate in one, either.