SAN FRANCISCO It's not over.
It's close to over, very close, but this International team has gamely battled back from deficits and adversity all week. In fact, this International squad could be the closest-knit, most-determined Presidents Cup opponent the United States has ever faced.
Thanks to the Internationals' grit, they trail by three points, 12 1/2 - 9 1/2, going into Sunday's singles matches. To win the Cup, they have to win eight of the remaining 12 points. That's a Herculean job.
"That's a tall ask," said Greg Norman, the International captain. "But it can be done and it has been done."
The U.S. team's history in Presidents Cup singles matches does not bode well for the International team. The most singles points the International team has ever won on a Sunday is seven, two years ago in Montreal, and that barely counts because the Americans wrapped the Cup up early, rendering most of the singles matches meaningless. The Americans have dominated in past singles showdowns. The U.S. is 47 1/2 - 36 1/2 all-time, 27 1/2 to 20 1/2 in the last four and 22 1/2 - 13 1/2 in the three Cups prior to Montreal.
"My guys are in a great place," Norman said. "This is what we needed for the Presidents Cup."
Norman was half-right. The event needed a close match, and the International team fought back to provide just that. As for being in a great place, that's just whistling past the graveyard, much like Ben Crenshaw at the 1999 Ryder Cup when he wagged a finger and said, "I've got a good feeling about this." The Americans, facing a four-point deficit at Brookline, backed up their captain's unlikely prediction to win the Cup.
Sunday's singles pairings are a strategic feast. If this were a Ryder Cup, where the pairings are submitted in a blind draw, Norman and American captain Fred Couples would've front-loaded their lineups for the race to 17 1/2 points. But the Presidents Cup pairings are done in a draft format, so Norman and Couples end up playing a game of chess, trying to match their opponent's moves. (You could argue that Norman still needed to front-load, but his players are so closely matched that it's a nearly impossible task.)
With the Americans, it's easy to determine the best players. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are the top two golfers in the world. Steve Stricker is the hottest American of the last two months, and Jim Furyk has played as well as anyone at Harding Park. On Saturday, Tiger, Phil and Furyk are in the No. 9, 11 and 12 slots while Stricker is No. 5. The U.S. lineup is clearly back-loaded.
Of the first seven singles matches, the Internationals might be able to grab six:
• Hunter Mahan vs. Camilo Villegas in the opener: Mahan sat out Saturday afternoon, as did Villegas. A toss up, but let's give it to Mahan.
• Adam Scott vs. Stewart Cink in the next match: It's possible Scott could pull it off. Cink hasn't won a match yet.
• Mike Weir has been one of the International team's top three stars this week. He could take down Justin Leonard in the third match.
• Robert Allenby vs. Anthony Kim: Kim has struggled, and Allenby has played solid golf.
• Geoff Ogilvy vs. Steve Stricker: Yes, Stricker was on fire Saturday with the putter, a superlative performance. But he's no spring chicken, and he looked pretty spent on Saturday night. In fact, it appeared that he hit the wall, energy-wise, on the 16th hole in the afternoon match. Ogilvy, who sat out the morning round and was rested, got his game to come around in the afternoon. Factoring in Stricker's fatigue, Ogilvy might be the favorite.
• Ernie Els vs. Sean O'Hair: Els is the horse of the International team.
• Finally, there's 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa vs. 49-year-old Kenny Perry. It's no stretch to picture Ishikawa, who holed clutch putts to prolong the four-ball match with Woods and Stricker, winning that one.
Even if the Internationals win only five of those first seven, they could tie the score at 14 1/2.
The rest of the lineup favors the U.S., which saved its three biggest guns for the finish. Woods gets a shot at Y.E. Yang, who beat him in the PGA Championship. Tiger is a well-known avenger even if he seldom admits to it. Does anybody really believe Tiger isn't going to win that singles match?
Mickelson, the hottest American player in the first three rounds, takes on Retief Goosen, whose play has been spotty this week. Goosen hasn't looked confident with his putter. Phil has. If his ailing back is OK, Mickelson should be a slam dunk. In the finale, it's Furyk versus Angel Cabrera, who has been inconsistent all week. Cabrera has the power edge but Harding Park requires plenty of finesse. You have to like Furyk in that position.
But ultimately, the strategy doesn't make that much difference. It's a fine line between winning and coming close, and these players know that only too well.
"The defining moment today was when Woods and Stricker turned around a 1-down deficit with two to go against Tim Clark and Mike Weir and ended up winning," Norman said. "That's what the difference is. If Tiger doesn't make that putt on 17 and Weir does, it's all over and we go into Sunday one point behind. Don't over-analyze this thing. It was great golf by Tiger on 17 and that phenomenal shot on 18, but there was one, two, three, four strokes in three days that made the difference between us being three points behind and one point."
As Norman pointed out, the three-point edge doesn't indicate just how closely contested these matches have been. The Internationals rallied late to keep the matches close on Thursday and Friday, and the Americans returned the favor in Saturday's sessions. These teams are pretty much dead even. That makes winning eight matches possible.
"No lead is ever safe," Furyk said. "We were four down at Brookline. I think we all like our position, but we all realize that we have to play well tomorrow to get the job done."
If the Internationals make the expected early charge Sunday, it's going to be a pretty good show. If the Americans come out strong early, then you will be able to say this with certainty it's over.