Europe grabbed a 5-3 lead after Friday's two sessions at Gleneagles — even though big guns Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter contributed only half a point.
But it was an improbable half point that felt like a win, gave the home side a momentum boost and could prove decisive in the final outcome as Europe bids for its eighth victory in 10 Ryder Cups.
"We've seen in the Ryder Cups over the years how important momentum switches are and how it can really have a domino effect," European captain Paul McGinley said. "So when the surge came from America at the end of the session this morning, for our guys to react as well as they did in all four matches, shows real strength of character."
The last time the Europeans led after the opening day was at the K Club in Ireland in 2006. They went on to win 18 1/2-9 1/2. The Americans led after the first full day in each of the last three Ryder Cups.
Trailing the United States 2 1/2-1 1/2 after the morning fourballs, the Europeans won three of the alternate-shot matches in the afternoon. More dramatic was the late rally by McIlroy and Garcia, who came from two shots down with two to play to halve with Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker.
McIlroy made a 30-foot birdie putt at the 17th and Garcia hit a beautiful approach from the rough on the 18th to set up another birdie.
"That was probably as good as a win, to come back from where they were," McGinley said.
The No. 1-ranked McIlroy and No. 3 Garcia had lost their fourballs match in the morning, beaten 1-up by Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley. Until the late comeback, it looked like McIlroy would become the first No. 1 player to lose two Ryder Cup matches on the same day since Tiger Woods in 2002.
"Sergio and I battled for all 36 holes out there today," McIlroy said. "It was a long day for both of us, and just glad that we were able to contribute something to the cause today."
He called the half-point a "mini-victory."
"It definitely is a huge halve in terms of momentum for the European team going into tomorrow," McIlroy said. "It was huge. For Sergio and I, it's just nice to be able to walk away from today with at least something."
The 3 1/2 points won in the afternoon set a European team record in Ryder Cup foursomes — beating the 3-point total achieved in five previous contests.
In the morning session, the Americans seemed to strike a big psychological blow by taking down McIlroy and Poulter.
In a stunning performance, 21-year-old Jordan Spieth and 24-year-old Patrick Reed — rookies who formed the youngest pairing in Ryder Cup history — beat Poulter and Scottish rookie Stephen Gallacher 5 and 4.
U.S. captain Tom Watson had singled out Poulter as the one player the Americans wanted to target — even more than McIlroy. Poulter had won seven consecutive Ryder Cup matches and was the catalyst of Europe's remarkable comeback in Medinah two years ago. This was Poulter's heaviest ever Cup defeat.
Watson left Spieth and Reed out of the afternoon session, a decision he knows will be second guessed.
"I thought at the time it was the best decision not to play them," Watson said. "There were a variety of reasons but I won't go into those. It was a decision that my vice captains and I made. ... I take the blame for that."
Watson said he told his team there is still plenty to play for. He portrays this weekend as a chance for redemption after the epic 2012 defeat in Medinah, where the Americans blew a 10-6 lead going into the final day.
"This is the second quarter of a football game," Watson said.
The afternoon began with Lee Westwood and Jamie Donaldson pulling Europe level by beating Jim Furyk and Matt Kuchar 2 up. Westwood, playing in his ninth Ryder Cup, enjoyed his role as mentor to the Welsh rookie.
"I love it, kind of watching somebody take to it like a duck to water," he said.
Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson won their second match of the day, beating Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson 2 and 1.
Graeme McDowell and French rookie Victor Dubuisson secured the final point, defeating Mickelson and Bradley 3 and 2. It's the first time Mickelson and Keegan have lost together in the Ryder Cup after four straight wins.
"Very fortunate to be playing alongside a player who I think really is Europe's next superstar," McDowell said of the 24-year-old Dubuisson, the youngest player on the team. "I really believe that. He was awesome today. He didn't miss a shot."