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U.S. takes lead into final day

SUNDAY, SEPT. 21, 2008

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Birdie putts fell one on top of the other, almost too quickly to keep up. Fists pumps charged up the crowd, often accompanied by players screaming above the din to celebrate.

Eight matches, 138 holes, 86 birdies, all crammed into 10 hours Saturday at the Ryder Cup.

When a gripping day at Valhalla ended, with both teams huddled on the grassy banks surrounding the 18th green to watch another match go the distance, the Americans clung to a 9-7 lead, ahead going into the last round for the first time since 1995.

“Anything could have happened,” U.S. captain Paul Azinger said.

Save that thought for today.

The Americans hung on for two key halves in the afternoon fourballs, none bigger than Steve Stricker holing an 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole, finally giving them a fighting chance to wrest that 17-inch gold chalice from Europe.

“We’re happy to be in the position we’re in,” Azinger said. “But there’s a long, long way to go. And we know that.”

The Americans need 5 1/2 points from 12 singles matches today to win the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1999, but even with a two-point lead, this Ryder Cup could go either way.

The shot-making has been spectacular. The shifts in momentum have been unpredictable. Who would have thought Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim would lose a 4-up lead to Henrik Stenson and Oliver Wilson in the morning, or that Mickelson and Hunter Mahan would lose a 2-up lead with seven holes to play against Stenson and Robert Karlsson?

“It seems like Ryder Cups kind of take things to another level,” European captain Nick Faldo said. “The putting and the shots have been amazing. Everything. These guys are able to produce unbelievable stuff at times.”

Boo Weekley hit out of a bunker from 144 yards to 2 feet for a tap-in birdie, only for Lee Westwood to match his birdie from 10 feet. For every big putt by Sergio Garcia, Stricker had an answer.

The intensity should return quickly today, with Kim and Garcia in the first of 12 matches. Faldo put two of his strongest players at the end – Westwood in the 11th match against Ben Curtis, and British Open and PGA winner Padraig Harrington as the anchor against Chad Campbell.

Azinger and Faldo passed each other at the end of the day.

“Tough day in the office,” Faldo said.

“A roller coaster,” Azinger replied.

It showed in their faces during afternoon sessions. One minute, it looked as though the Americans would build a 10-6 lead. The next, it looked as though they wouldn’t have any lead at all.

Ian Poulter’s eyes grew large after making a 30-inch birdie putt that looked like 30 feet. Poulter arrived as a controversial captain’s pick, but he was the only European to play all four matches and he delivered three vital points.

Europe has built overwhelming leads the last two times, practically icing the champagne on Saturday night.

“It was amazing golf,” Azinger said. “It’s amazing because there’s so much pressure here and so much tension and you see in pressure situations the best performance in sports. A two-point lead is great. To have a two-point lead going into singles, we’re happy.”


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