LOUISVILLE, Ky. The Americans find themselves in an unusual position: leading the Ryder Cup.
Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan claimed the first point for the U.S., Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim rallied to halve their match, and a European three-putt at No. 18 handed another win to Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell on a red, white and blue Friday at Valhalla Golf Club.
For the first time since 1991, the Americans were ahead of the Europeans after the opening session. The U.S. grabbed a 3-1 lead in foursomes and a bit of a cushion heading into afternoon four-ball.
The Europeans gained a boost at the end of the alternate-shot matches when their most imposing team, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, rallied to win the final two holes and halve their match with Jim Furyk and local favorite Kenny Perry.
Perry was poised to send the Kentucky crowd into a frenzy when he stood over an 8-foot putt at No. 17 to win the match. But the ball slid by the hole, and Perry followed by knocking his tee shot at 18 into the water right of the fairway, rekindling memories of his final-hole meltdown at the 1996 PGA Championship on this same course.
Perry's woes allowed Garcia and Westwood to escape with a half point and extend their impressive records. Garcia still has never lost in foursomes (he's 8-0-1) and Westwood has gone 11 matches without a loss a European record.
Padraig Harrington, winner of the last two majors, and Robert Karlsson gave the Euros their only half-point, but that felt more like a loss after they let a commanding lead on Mickelson and Kim slip away.
The Americans haven't taken the cup since "The Miracle at Brookline" in 1999. Since then, the Europeans have won three in a row, the last two in routs.
Of the 28 points available, Europe needs only 14 to retain the cup. The Americans must win outright to regain it.
The visitors looked to be off and running again, surging to early leads in all four morning matches shortly after the sun came up. Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey won the first two holes against Leonard and Mahan, one of six rookies on the U.S. team.
Ian Poulter and Justin Rose were 3-up on Cink and Campbell after seven holes. Harrington and Karlsson looked to be in good shape when they started the back side by winning three straight holes for a 3-up lead with six to play.
But the Americans stormed back, no one more than Mahan. After a shaky start, he teamed with Leonard to put the Americans 2-up by the turn. They didn't even need to play the final two holes.
Leonard rolled in a short par putt at the 16th to clinch the match his first victory in Ryder Cup play, though he's still remembered as the hero at Brookline for a 45-foot putt that halved his singles match and gave the Americans their most recent win.
"We had holes left," Mahan said. "We knew we could play better than that. We just had to keep going. Win one hole, then win two, then win three."
Leonard, whose Ryder record improved to 1-3-5, finally claimed an entire point.
"It feels great," he said. "I told Hunter, 'I lost those first two holes for us on purpose to take the pressure off.' We had a lot of fun out there and I'm looking forward to this afternoon."
For the four-ball matches, U.S. captain Paul Azinger kept together the Mickelson-Kim and Leonard-Mahan pairings. The other two were all-rookie groups getting their first action: Steve Stricker teamed with Ben Curtis, and J.B. Holmes partnered with Boo Weekley.
European captain Nick Faldo shook things up a bit. Harrington was paired with fellow Irishman Graeme McDowell, Garcia played with Miguel Angel Jimenez in an all-Spaniard group, and Westwood went out with Soren Hansen. Poulter, the most debated of Faldo's discretionary picks, and Rose were the only group kept together.
Oliver Wilson of England was the lone player who didn't get on the course in either session.
The Euros, hoping to pull closer, were holding 1-up leads in three afternoon matches: Harrington and McDowell over Mickelson and Kim (through nine holes), Poulter and Rose over Stricker and Curtis (six holes), and Westwood and Hansen over Holmes and Weekley (four holes). Leonard and Mahan kept up their solid play with a 2-up edge on Garcia and Jimenez after five holes.
Cink and Campbell made their move after Poulter shockingly knocked an easy sand wedge into the creek surrounding the island green at No. 13, leaving the match all-square.
It was still tied going to the final hole, but Rose sent a par putt rocketing past the hole and Poulter missed a 4-footer coming back. Cink and Campbell merely had to pick their ball up, their 1-up win assuring the Americans of the lead going to the afternoon.
Mickelson and Kim provided a crucial half-point that looked lost when they dropped the first three holes after the turn.
Lefty had a distracting round. A photographer clicked his camera just as Mickelson was chipping at No. 10, and a giant butterfly dipped into the cup as a birdie putt slid by at No. 13. But the Americans still managed to win that hole, sparking their comeback.
Harrington and Karlsson struggled to keep their tee shots in the fairway, and the Irishman seemed to have problems with his neck, getting an impromptu rubdown behind the eighth green.
Both sides tried to throw it away at the final hole. Harrington skulled a grounder out of the fairway sand, and Kim came up short with a shot out of a greenside bunker, leaving the ball hanging perilously on a severe slope. But Mickelson flopped it up near the flag, and Kim rolled in a clutch 5-footer to halve the match after Harrington missed a 10-footer for the win.
"We've got to play a little freer," Mickelson said. "We wanted this so bad that I think we hit some shots that were a little tight. We've got to go out today and kind of freewheel it a little bit, play a little more relaxed and see if we can make some more birdies."
Harrington was disappointed with his performance. He made some clutch putts, but hardly looked like the player coming off wins in the British Open and PGA Championship.
"It would have been very sweet to get the win there," he said.