The difference on Friday was how the two teams played Le Golf National's 18th hole.
SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France — This may be the most talented U.S. Ryder Cup team in a generation, but when the Americans took a 3-1 lead in the Friday morning fourball matches, the difference was not talent. Truly, the difference was not much of anything, except this: Americans have finally figured out the Ryder Cup.
To understand, you just have to look at two matches and one hole: the par-4 18th, which is playing a daunting 471 yards into the wind, with water everywhere. The tee might as well be on a tight rope. Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau arrived there all-square with Justin Rose and Jon Rahm, which might have surprised a lot of people, including all four golfers and the woman that Koepka hit in the face with a tee shot on the front nine.
As Finau said later, “They scored better than us for the first 12 holes. We kept telling each other, one hole at a time, let’s try to get back in this thing.” Finau looked nervous in his Ryder Cup debut. The ever-cool Koepka couldn’t make a putt. But U.S. captain Jim Furyk has learned what it took Americans far too long to figure out: the captain’s most important task is to get his players in a good frame of mind.
Koepka had the best year of any golfer in the world, winning his second straight U.S. Open as well as the PGA Championship. But he probably has the fewest possible partners on the team. Most of the other young stars—Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler—live in different social circles and aren’t a good personality fit. Koepka’s entire golf existence is driven by disrespect. Pairing him with one of America’s darlings would just be weird. Besides, they might get excited or something and he would look at them funny.
But Finau is a perfect fit: even-tempered, capable of being himself and meshing with Koepka. Even as they scuffled along the front nine, they believed. Then they did what you just have to do sometimes in a Ryder Cup: play well when the other guys don’t. And on 18, it was the European stars who made a mess of things. Rahm hit his drive into the right rough. At Le Golf National, that’s basically a death sentence, and he had to lay up. Rose hit his approach a little too flush—perhaps with adrenaline flowing—and it bounded threw the green into the water. Rahm missed a par putt. Finau and Koepka had won a point.
The other match that tells you so much involved Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, who were playing the all-Brit team of Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton. Most of us assumed Spieth would be paired with Patrick Reed, since they had so much success in the past two Ryder Cups. But while Spieth and Reed were successful, they have never been close, and neither one seemed to be begging to play with each other again. As I wrote earlier this week, you should never worry about Spieth and the big stage. But the way he has played this year, Furyk was wise to pair him with his longtime friend, Thomas.
Spieth carried Thomas on the front nine to a degree that could feel awkward if they weren’t such longtime friends. There was no chance of it being awkward for them. And if you have watched Thomas at all, you knew: He would probably get hot, and nobody can get hotter than he can. Thomas dropped a dagger to within five feet on 15 and sank the birdie putt, then parred the difficult par-3 16th.
Pressure? They played 18 just as you would want to play it if you were one up in fourball play. They both hit perfect tee shots. Spieth’s approach landed safely on the green, so Thomas got aggressive with his approach. He found water, but it was worth the risk.
Then they did something really smart. Hatton had a long birdie putt. Casey, had a chance to give Hatton a good read with his own par effort. Spieth and Thomas conceded Casey’s putt so he couldn’t give Hatton that read. Spieth hit his first putt to within three feet. Hatton missed. Spieth had to make his to win the match, and he did. Like Finau and Koepka, they were better when they had to be, and that’s why it was a great morning for the Americans.