SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – As Tony Finau’s tee shot on the par-3 16th hole seemed to stall over the water as it ballooned into the wind, Bubba Watson, standing just off the elevated tee, was exhorting the ball to find an unlikely burst of energy.
“Get! Up!” he shouted, pausing between the two words for emphasis.
On the tee, Finau was shouting the same. So was his four-ball teammate Brooks Koepka. So were their caddies. Maybe the collective shouting pushed it just enough. The ball landed dead on top of the wood railroad tie just in front of the green. The ball bounced high in the air and settled 3 feet from the hole.
Watson turned away, his eyes bigger than French pastries. “Wow. That could mean something by the end of the day,” he said.
It could mean something by the end of the week.
Finau made the putt to square the match against Europe’s Justin Rose and Jon Rahm. When the American pair won the 18th with Koepka’s par, they led for the only time in the match—at the end. Should the U.S. team go on to win this 42nd Ryder Cup and break a 25-year victory drought abroad, it might well look to Finau’s fortunate break.
“It's the best break I've gotten when it meant something,” the Ryder Cup rookie said. “I think that one will be replayed for a long time to come. That was a huge momentum changer for our match, and we were able to take advantage of it.”
The importance of winning the first match in the Ryder Cup can’t be discounted. There was a reason Euro captain Thomas Bjorn threw arguably his strongest pair out first. You want put the first point on the board, give your team a boost of both numerical and psychological importance. Statistics suggest that the opening match matters greatly in these usually tight contests.
Since continental Europe joined the fray in 1979, the side that wins the opening match, be it foursomes or four-ball, has won the Ryder Cup 13 of 19 times.
Until the last 45 minutes, that match looked like it would belong to Europe. Finau’s lucky 8-iron from 155 yards flipped more than just the score. It seemed to flip the narrative. The 1-Up win was the first of three U.S. victories in the opening four-ball session, usually a format at which the Europeans are better.
“It was cool to win the point for our team because we told the captain we wanted to play first,” Finau said. “We wanted to be that first match and we wanted to set the tone for this Ryder Cup. I'm just extremely proud we were able to do what we wanted to do and win the point for our team.”
“I felt like it was a big point, our match was a big point, swinging that one, because it looked like they were going to win the match pretty much the whole way through, especially when we got 2-down,” said Koepka, who improved to 4-1 in the Ryder Cup. “To come back and be able to flip it like that was really a two-point swing.”
Time will tell if it was worth that—or even more.