Bjorn's strategy rewarded as Europe assume the lead
Fourballs, according to conventional wisdom, is the natural place to begin for a Ryder Cup rookie – and that was the basis of Thomas Bjorn’s strategy as Europe ended the first day with a handsome lead at Le Golf National.
When the match in question is on European soil then that tends to involve going out on the first morning.
With five rookies on his European team, Bjorn, it could be argued, had little choice but to throw several of them straight into action.
Presuming, that is, he wanted all of his team to play on the opening day, which evidently he did.
He knew that otherwise they would be making their bow in foursomes, traditionally a more testing format where it takes that much longer to find your rhythm.
His choice, then, was either to load the morning fourballs with his strongest, most experienced players; or to introduce his rookies from the get-go. Instinct, versus cunning, if you like. Bjorn’s strategy was short-term pain for long-term gain.
The Dane was sensible, pragmatic, calculating, and ever so slightly reckless – if it is possible to be all of those things at the same time.
He chose four of his rookies for the opening session – Jon Rahm, Thorbjorn Olesen, Tyrrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood – the maximum without fielding an all-rookie duo.
Only Alex Noren had to wait until the afternoon to taste the unique Ryder Cup atmosphere.
In doing so, he was playing the long game. He was also facing the real and present danger of a repeat – or something close to it – of the opening-session rout at Hazeltine two years.
He also told his team before play what the plan was for the afternoon and then had the courage to stick with it.
“It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride,” said Bjorn. “We’re delighted with the way the day turned out.
“I had a plan and I stuck to it for this first day. That’s how I saw the day and the matches. I had it in my mind for a few days now.”
For the European pairs in the morning, the hierarchy was clear: an experienced star with a rookie as his wingman. Or at least that was the plan.
Rahm was impressive in places but failed to provide quite as much in the way of support for Justin Rose as we would have wished.
Hatton was quiet for the most part as Paul Casey strove manfully to bring them back from the brink against Spieth and Thomas.
Olesen found himself in the unlikely role of stalwart as his partner, Rory McIlroy, failed to make a single birdie.
However, Bjorn said that he never doubted his star man.
“The only thing I say to Rory is ‘you go again’. I make quite clear all along that I am not qualified to tell Rory McIlroy how to play golf but I am in a position this week to lead him in the right direction. It doesn’t take much.”
That left Fleetwood. He and Francesco Molinari were trailing two down after 10, there were back-to-back birdies from first Molinari and then Fleetwood to turn the match around.
Bjorn’s four rookies had contributed one point and America won the session 3-1.
However, Europe had absorbed the Americans’ best stuff, while keeping more than a little in reserve themselves.
Out came Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Alex Noren and Ian Poulter for the afternoon.
Never before, surely, have Europe left so much on the bench.
The afternoon was a blitz of blue. No match went beyond the 16th.
Doubtless the strengthening wind played into Europe’s hands but they simply had a stronger, fresher group of players on the course.
In foursomes, there is nowhere to hide, which made Furyk’s decision to play the out-of-form Phil Mickelson in this format all the stranger. Might he not have been better playing him in the fourballs and saving Tiger Woods for the foursomes?
You could also question why he didn’t, like Bjorn, hold a little back for the afternoon. After all, while apologising for stating the obvious, there are four points available in both morning and afternoon sessions alike.
By the end of the afternoon, Europe were sitting on a lead. The opening day had been transformed.
It was a case of game Furyk, but set Bjorn. As for the match? Well, that remains to be seen.