John Clay

Tiger who? Lefty, Kim steal the show

LOUISVILLE — The first-day gallery of the 37th Ryder Cup featured 11 leprechauns, six matadors, numerous American flags, and (at least) a trio of camouflage-capped patrons wearing "Team USA: Home of the Red, White and Boo" T-shirts.

And if you thought that was nuts, you should have seen what was happening inside the ropes.

Not since 1995 has the U.S. led the Ryder Cup after the first day. But after one glorious morning and one glorious afternoon at Valhalla, that's where we stand, with Paul Azinger's charges holding a commanding 51/2-21/2 lead over Nick "Frowning" Faldo's charges.

Seems like no Tiger is no problem. Not when you have Phil Mickelson.

That's right, Phil Mickelson, so often criticized for being too soft of backbone, too lacking of heart, too questionable in judgment to grab the big victory on the big occasion.

The same Phil Mickelson who many thought, with Tiger Woods on the sideline thanks to his bum knee, would shrink like a violet from the clutch.

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That was until along came a 23-year-old Californian named Anthony Kim to administer a booster shot of electricity — in a power-starved city — to his 38-year-old partner.

"I love playing with this guy," gushed Phil at the end of the day.

There was much to love. Three-down to the European superteam of Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson after 12 holes in the morning foursomes, Mickelson and Kim stormed back — thanks in part to an amazing, spinning, near-trick shot by Mickelson from up over the green that helped win 14 — to pull all-square on the 15th, then held on to halve a tough match.

In the afternoon, Mickelson and Kim quickly fell 3-down after just four holes to Harrington and Graeme McDowell. The Americans were still 1-down after 12 in what shaped up to be a terrific match.

Then, the Americans' suddenly dynamic duo turned it on. It tied the match on the 13th and took the lead on 14. McDowell birdied 15 to pull even, which it stayed through 16.

But in came Phil and his sudden nerves of steel. A below-average 9-14-2 in his six previous Ryder Cups, Mickelson stepped up on 17 and flat-out drained a remarkable 25-foot putt from just off the fringe to give the Americans the lead, a lead they secured to win the match on 18. The match featured 19 birdies, 11 for the winners, eight for the losers.

What it meant for the Euros: Coming off back-to-back majors wins in the British Open and the PGA, Harrington ended the day with zero victories and only half a point.

What it meant for the Americans: With Woods nowhere to be found, Mickelson has put himself in position to rewrite his legacy.

"He held me up when I wasn't playing so well," said Kim.

Each leaned on the other, truth be told.

"They really wanted to play together," said Paul Azinger, the U.S. captain. "They're both really good players, that's the main thing. And they have a little bit of a chemistry going."

Azinger will send them out again Saturday morning when they'll take on Henrik Stenson and Oliver Wilson in morning foursomes.

"He has a lot of talent, a lot of game," said Mickelson of his rookie partner. "It was fun for me to get that youthful exuberance today. It's infectious. We played with a lot of heart and emotion."

In fact, Mickelson might be sporting blisters so often did he slap fives with his Golden State partner. With a compatible partner and no Woods, Mickelson played like the old Phil: going for it, getting himself in a bit of trouble, then climbing out of it with wonderful shot-making.

And, depending on how the rest of this suddenly rambunctious Ryder Cup plays out, right into America's hearts.