Historically, Presidents Cup foursome matches have not been a happy hunting ground for previous International sides but today, at Royal Melbourne, they made a very important turn for the better.
They tied the alternate shot matches on day two 2½ to 2½ and now lead the overall contest at Royal Melbourne by 6½ to 3½ but the leader-board hardly tells the story of the day.
Leading 4 to 1 following the completion of yesterday’s fourball encounters, the Internationals didn’t extend their lead but importantly they did not allow the Americans to claw back any of the advantage they (The Internationals) had built on day one.
They would, however, lose a significant lead they had created during the course of play on day two, a setback which might yet play a huge role in the final outcome of the 13th Presidents Cup.
Once again, the Americans went ahead early, although this time it was Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar who were out first and took a 2-up advantage through 5 holes over the leading ranked International combination of Adam Scott and Louis Oosthuizen.
The lead would not last long however as, by the turn, the match was tied and with the Internationals winning three of the next five holes they were two up and eventually took out the match 3&2.
It was not long before the leader-board was awash with yellow, the Internationals leading in all five matches including the one that had already been settled and it was appearing as if the ‘home’ side might well be on their way to an unassailable lead .
Tournament golf, whether it be the individual or team variety, works in strange ways, however, and slowly but surely Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay overcame the deficit with wins at two of their last four holes to win their match against Adam Hadwin and Joaquin Niemann at the last, Cantlay holing from 15 feet at the 18th for the last gasp win.
Tiger Woods had not been behind in this encounter in any stage in his first 26 holes but he and Justin Thomas went down for the first time at the 8th hole after they had established an early lead. They, too, would birdie two holes late in their round however to defeat Byeong Hun An and Hideki Matsuyama with a stunning birdie at the last.
Thomas holed from 18 feet to win the match and, while he will no doubt receive many of the accolades for his brilliant pressure putt, it was the superb approach by Tiger Woods from the right hand rough that should also be remembered as a key component of the come from behind victory.
“His iron play is unbelievable,” said Thomas. “That was kind of our game plan going into today is we both — iron play, I feel like is both of our strengths, and just kind of get it in the fairway. You know, I think we were — I mean, at least 4-under, something like that.
“We played really well to be going to 18 to try to win but that’s why I was upset off the tee — I obviously haven’t played the hole enough, and thought I hit it right of the universe and it was only three yards in the rough. Once I knew it was okay, and Tiger said going up there, I’ve got a great angle – it was a case of me sitting back and watch ing.
“I’ve watched him have moments like this as a kid and I was glad he was on my team hitting it and not going against me in a stroke-play event. I knew he was going to give me a good look there and he did.”
In the final match on the course, Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland were never ahead in their match against Sungjae Im and Cameron Smith and in fact with just three holes to play they were still 2 down. They would birdie the 16th and 17th however and Fowler was forced to hole a demanding 5-footer at the last for par to claim the a very important half point.
“I had to obviously trust my read and what I was seeing and what I was feeling,” said Fowler when asked about the putt. “You can’t make it go in. All you can do is hit a good putt. So literally all I was thinking about, because they were coming down — from that side of the green, as well, it’s very fast. Luckily I’m not having to worry about if there’s a putt coming back. It’s make or miss.”
The Americans had averted, therefore,what at one stage appeared to be a whitewash and instead of going into tomorrow’s matches with perhaps a nine point deficit they are now just 3 points behind and, very importantly, in terms of their chances over the weekend, their late rush today has given them the all-important momentum for what lies ahead.
For the Internationals it is crucial that they don’t dwell on what might have been. After all, if they had been told at the beginning of the week they would lead by three through the opening two days they might well have jumped at the opportunity.
“You know, to be three points ahead after two sessions, one of which is foursomes, and we have struggled with it at all the Presidents Cups that me and Louis have been involved with, yeah, for sure,” said Marc Leishman when asked that very question.
“I mean, any lead against them is good, but a three-point lead is even better. But there’s still a lot of points to play for. You know, we need to keep doing what we’re doing and keep improving because we know their jet-lag is going to start wearing off, and I’m sure they will start firing up. We need to be ready for it.”
Tiger Woods has decided to take at least tomorrow morning’s fourball off, recognising the potential danger of playing all five matches despite how well he is playing.
“Yeah, that was kind of the game plan,” said the USA captain. “It would be hard for me to go all the sessions. I’ve been fortunate enough to go out there with J.T. and we’ve gotten two points. J.T. played great and Rickie played awesome this afternoon. They have been looking forward to playing with one another. They have had success before and we will send them back out.”
So the weekend is shaping as a real battle between the two sides. The Internationals have a lead that is significant but whether it is enough to hold off an improving US side remains to be seen.
For the huge crowds predicted for the weekend the final 36 holes of this thus far intriguing contest might well get even more so.
Bring it on.