MEDINAH, IL —  As shadows descended over Medinah Country Club this evening, an ebullient United States team retired to their team quarters with a solid 5-3 lead, thanks to a dominant performance in the afternoon four-ball matches.   Only a phenomenal performance by Nicholas Colsaerts, who made virtually every putt he looked at, avoided an afternoon sweep by the U.S. team.  Colsaerts and Lee Westwood edged out Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker when Woods’ uphill 16-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole grazed the cup.

Captain Davis Love chose to sit rookies Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson in the morning, but sent them out first in the afternoon, hoping their enthusiasm would spark the team.  He wasn’t disappointed.  Watson and Simpson went on a birdie bonanza with ten birdies in fourteen holes, and closed out the match 5&4 on the 14th hole.

Another bright spot for the Americans was the team of Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, whose chemistry produced wins in their morning foursomes match against Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia and their afternoon four-ball match against Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.   Mickelson clinched the win in the afternoon with a remarkable tee shot to within 18 inches of the hole on 17.

Mickelson and Bradley clearly are having more fun than anyone at Medinah.  “I’m just having such a blast playing with Phil,” gushed Bradley.  “That was the best shot I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  I’m just happy to be a part of it.”  Mickelson returned the compliment:  “I felt young and it felt great.  I love playing with Keegan.  I would say to him a couple of times, I need a little pep talk, and he would give me something, get me boosted right up and I would end up hitting a good shot.”

Woods and Stricker, who have been paired many times in Ryder Cup competition, went 0-2 today, losing their foursome match against Ian Poulter and Justin Rose in which they could muster only three birdies against four bogeys.   Reports circulated that former captain Paul Azinger was critical of Love for playing Woods again in the afternoon.  However, Woods vindicated Love’s decision with solid play down the stretch.  He recorded five birdies on the back nine, but it was simply not enough to overcome Colsaerts’ outstanding performance on the greens.   “Nicholas probably had one of the greatest putting rounds I’ve ever seen,” said Woods.  “We had a chance to all square on the last hole, and I missed it.”

Davis Love’s Imprint on Medinah Is Producing Birdies

One of the unique aspects of the Ryder Cup is that the host captain has considerable input into how the course is set up for the competition.   It was no secret over the past year that Davis Love was determined to produce a kinder and gentler Medinah that would favor the many long hitters on the United States team, primarily by eliminating the heavy rough that has characterized the No. 3 course in past championships.    Love worked closely with superintendent Curtis Tyrrell and Kerry Haigh of the PGA, and continues to have input on tee and hole locations during the competition.   This overt “home course advantage” is simply part of the fabric of the Ryder Cup.

Love acknowledged that it is within his province as captain to shape the course to his team’s strengths in order to counteract similar strategies of European captains who favor deep rough and tapered fairways.  However, he also noted that the set-up of Medinah comports with his preference for the style of golf he likes to play and watch.  “I’ve just never been a fan of driving it in the rough and chipping it out and playing a wedge game.”

Love also feels that what might suit a major championship is not necessarily best suited to the Ryder Cup.  “Match play is a whole different animal, and we want it to be fun for the players and we want it to be fun for the fans.  I think some holes ought to be won with birdies and not with a bunch of pars.”

Love’s vision clearly has been realized.   There is virtually no rough here.  Medinah, in fact, looks much like Augusta National this week.   This means players can miss fairways by wide margins and still be able to play shots to the greens, provided they aren’t blocked by the large oak trees than line the fairways.   And many of the trees have been removed since the PGA championship was played here in 2006.  This more open and less punitive Medinah might favor players like Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, and Tiger Woods, who frequently find themselves playing recovery shots.

Yet, while at one time there might have been pronounced differences in the styles of play of American and European golfers, those differences have narrowed given the multitude of Europeans now playing on the PGA Tour.  Matt Kuchar seemed skeptical that the course set-up will give his team a significant advantage.  “You’re looking at 24 of the best players in the world, guys that play mostly on the U.S. Tour, guys that play mostly on the same courses.  You’d hope that if the U.S. captain is trying to set up a course that it’s trying to set it up advantageously for his squad.  Hard to say how well it will work. “

One thing is certain, the kinder and gentler Medinah yielded lots of birdies today.   And some impressive recovery shots that couldn’t have been pulled off out of deep rough.

Phil’s Phenomenal Recovery Shot

Speaking of recovery shots, Mickelson played a shot from behind the trees on the 12th hole that should go down of one of his greatest.   His tee shot on the brutal 476-yard par-4 hole sailed wide left, and came to rest on a bank.   He had two problems.  He had no direct shot to the green due to the trees lining the left side of the hole.   In addition, if he played a fade shot around those trees, an enormous oak tree which guards the left side of the green would come into play.   It was about as close to an impossible shot as one might imagine.

When Mickelson chose to go with a hybrid, most fans assumed he was going to play a low shot to the right of the green.   But this was Phil.   He somehow hit a high fade through a gap in the trees that cleared the oak tree and landed on the green.  For sometime afterwards, spectators passing by lingered at the spot of this latest Houdini exercise and marveled at the accomplishment.   Unfortunately, Mickelson missed the birdie putt.