It was the first match of the day and the biggest mismatch: the unlikely teammates of Hideki Matsuyama and Adam Hadwin against the two-headed American monster of Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed.
Hadwin, 29, is a proud son of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, making his Presidents Cup debut as the 47th-ranked player in the world. Matsuyama, 25, is from, coincidentally, Matsuyama, Japan, and is ranked 3rd in the world but stumbled his way through the FedEx Cup playoffs, failing to record a top-20 and beating just two players at last week's Tour Championship. It's not that the two lack for talent—Hadwin shot 59 this January and recorded his first Tour win at the Valspar, while Matsuyama won three times this season—but compared to the cocky, comfortable pairing on the other side of the card, they seemed a less obvious, less formidable team.
"I mean, obviously it's difficult," Hadwin said afterward about his pairing. "We speak two different languages. But, you know, I think it's pretty easy to communicate when you make a birdie."
Here's the thing: Moose Jaw is a hell of a long way from Matsuyama. Reed's hometown—San Antonio—and Spieth's—Dallas—are closer together, with a less significant language barrier. It's no wonder they'd look and feel like a more natural pair. A question as simple as what the International team's colors should be can lead to an existential question about what it means to be a not-American. The Fanatics, a half-Aussie, half-South African ("and a couple Kiwis," they said) group of International fans spreading song and merriment this week at Liberty National, have chosen yellow and green. They greeted the ever-confident Reed from the grandstand by No. 1 with this lyrical gem:
"He's best in the world/He's best in the world/Just ask Patrick!/He's best in the world!"
Reed cracked a smile.
"I was gonna wait for my partner," he said as he made his way to the 1st tee, with an unhurried Spieth still rolling practice putts, "but I don't feel like losing the 1st hole because he's late." Spieth eventually arrived in time to hit driver down the right side of the fairway, and Reed followed him by pummeling his tee shot down the middle.
Hadwin laid back with three-wood, and Hideki hit a long, wrong block-slice into a tree right of the fairway. When Hadwin's three-foot par putt snuck in to halve the hole, it drew a few cheers, but the crowd was decidedly American. Reed and Spieth flanked by assistant captain Tiger Woods cut an intimidating path. When Reed curled in an eagle putt to a roar on the second green, the rout seemed on.
As it turned out, the rout WAS on—but not in this group. Some ham-and-egging from the International pair brought them right back into things. Matsuyama birdied the 4th, which earned him an affectionate backslap from Hadwin. When Matsuyama promptly chunk-hooked a three-wood into the water on the 5th tee, he slung his arm around Hadwin's shoulder, as if to say, "You've got this one." Matsuyama birdied 4, 6, and 8, while Hadwin earned halves on 3, 5, 7, and 9, at which point the International pair was 2 up. At that point, the Internationals controlled three of the five matches on course. "We're trying to hit as good of shots as we can, make some putts, and a high-five, a fist-pump can go a long way," Hadwin said. They were rolling. But it wouldn't end that way.
Four-ball is a less collaborative format than Thursday's alternate shot, and as a result it has the feel of two teams—each player and his caddie—working in the same general direction but not intimately so. While Matsuyama and Hadwin did talk over a couple of putts, the contrast was stark to their American counterparts, who were in near-constant dialogue.
Walking down the 4th fairway, Hadwin's caddie tried to strike up a conversation with Matsuyama's caddie about the Asian cuisine in Canada.
"Ah, we've got some of the best ramen," Hadwin's caddie said.
"There's lots of different food in Canada," Hadwin interjected, using his hands to explain. "Lots of different types of food."
Hadwin, 5-foot-9-inches (in spikes, maybe), has a beard fit for a banjo player in a hipster bluegrass band. He plays slowly but swings quickly and was buoyed Friday by an enthusiastic group of his countrymen decked out in Canadian-flag bodysuits.
Matsuyama seems like an affable guy, but appears to enjoy a solitary walk down the fairway. A legion of Japanese media follows him everywhere, and yet he maintains a remarkable amount of privacy. In August he revealed that he had gotten married—in January. ("Nobody asked!" he said.) He plods along, and you could serve refreshments during the pause at the top of his backswing.
Matsuyama's driver deserted him on the back nine and he caught a case of the hard rights. His partner took control and tried to guide the team home on his own—but that was no easy task against their opponents. When 2 up with five to play quickly became all square with two holes to go, a sense of tragic inevitability set in.
"I think we were a little fortunate to have Jordan miss two putts inside 20 feet," Hadwin said, relieved with the half-point. "He doesn't normally do that."
It felt like mercy when Spieth's would-be winning putt circled the edge and stayed out on the 18th green. It felt even more merciful hours later, when the half-point they'd earned in the first group was the lone bright spot for the International side, which trails 8-2 heading to the weekend.
"The Captain, Nick [Price], will say, you never know in golf—keep grinding," Hideki said afterward through his interpreter. "That's kind of how I feel about it, too. You just have to keep trying your best, and that tide will turn sometime."
He and Hadwin looked tired as they descended from the podium. As Matsuyama stopped to answer another question, Hadwin snuck out the door, giving his partner a quick pat on the shoulder as he went.