MONTREAL (AP) — The Americans got off to a near-perfect start Thursday in the Presidents Cup, getting superb play from veterans and rookies alike in winning 5 1/2 points out of the six alternate-shot matches at Royal Montreal.
And if not for U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus, it might have been worse.
Despite a leaderboard covered with American red numbers, perhaps the most poignant moment of a gray afternoon was Nicklaus instructing Phil Mickelson and Woody Austin to concede a 3 1/2-foot par putt on the 18th hole that assured Mike Weir of Canada and his International team its only point of the opening session.
In a tense battle with only six holes halved, the match was all square going to the 18th when both sides missed the green. Mickelson blasted out to 12 feet, while Weir chipped to 3 1/2 feet above the hole. Austin made the par putt, and before Vijay Singh could spot his ball, the match was conceded.
“Captain Nicklaus was right. It was the right thing to do,” Mickelson said.
It was typical of Nicklaus, who famously conceded a putt about the same distance to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup that allowed those matches to end in a draw. That gesture became a symbol of sportsmanship in match play between countries and continents.
“That didn’t surprise me at all with Jack,” Weir said. “I guess I’m a little old fashioned that way. It’s a gentlemen’s game.”
Then again, this was only Thursday — and it was clear the Americans were in charge.
The matches began 30 minutes late because of a downpour on the Ile Bizard, and once they began, the Americans wasted no time taking control. Steve Stricker, returning to the Presidents Cup after an 11-year absence, joined with rookie Hunter Mahan for a 3-and-2 victory over the Australian pair of Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy.
Tiger Woods and Charles Howell III were in the final match and picked up a 3-and-1 victory over K.J. Choi and Nick O’Hern, with Woods doing most of the heavy lifting and Howell coming up with big putts on the back nine.
It was the biggest blowout in the opening session since the Americans pitched a 5-0 shutout in 2000.
But there were traces of 2005, when the International side failed to win any of the 12 matches that went the distance. Whether it was Ernie Els and Angel Cabrera, or Rory Sabbatini and Trevor Immelman, they sure had their chances.
Sabbatini and Immelman, who lost an early 2-up lead, were all square playing the 18th when Sabbatini hooked his tee shot into the water, leading to a bogey. Zach Johnson played his tee shot well to the right, Stewart Cink found a greenside bunker, and Johnson secured the match with a bunker shot so close it was conceded to par.
Els and Cabrera were run over by Jim Furyk and David Toms, who raced out to a 3-up lead with five holes remaining. But the International team won two straight holes, and Els kept them in the match with a 15-foot par putt on the 16th. And it looked as though they would at least earn a halve when Furyk pulled his tee shot on the 18th into the water.
Els played a fadeaway from the lip of a fairway bunker to the front of the green, and Cabrera’s putt stopped 4 feet short of the hole. This putt was not conceded, and Els missed it to halve the hole and lose the match.
Then there was Retief Goosen and Stuart Appleby, also tried to squeeze out a half-point with a win on the 18th hole. Appleby, however, pulled his approach so badly that it took 15 minutes to get a ruling, and Goosen’s best option was to take a penalty stroke and hit their third shot over a row of corporate chalets. Lucas Glover and Scott Verplank made a par from the bunker for a 2-up win.
Woods and Howell had a few nervous moments, even though they never trailed after the sixth hole. They were 1 up on the 16th hole when Choi hit his tee shot into the water, and it looked as though the Americans had control. Howell followed him into the water with a fairway metal to lose the advantage, but he redeemed himself with a 15-foot par putt from the fringe.
“I did not want to miss that putt. I was not going to miss the putt,” Howell said. “I can’t let him down.”
They slapped hands walking off the green, and Woods closed out the match with a tee shot into 3 feet on the par-3 17th.
Still, no match was more compelling than Mickelson-Austin against Weir-Singh, and it certainly was the loudest given the wild changes in momentum and a gallery that cheered at the sight of its Canadian star walking up to the green.
Down early, Weir and Singh won five out of seven holes to build a 3-up lead and appeared to be in control until Mickelson and Austin ran off three straight birdies to square the match. That set the stage for a dramatic finish.
– Singh holed out from a bunker for birdie to win the 15th.
– Austin holed a 7-foot par putt to halve the 16th, then Mickelson poured in a 15-foot birdie putt to win the 17th and square the match.
Austin blinked first on the 18th, missing badly to the left into a bunker, and Mickelson did well to blast out to 12 feet. Singh went to the right, although Weir had a good lie in the rough and chipped to 3 1/2 feet.
Austin made yet another clutch putt, getting his Presidents Cup debut off to a rousing start, and that’s when Nicklaus stepped in. Mickelson and Singh have a strained relationship dating to their argument over spikes at the 2005 Masters, but Lefty had no trouble following the captain’s instructions.
“There shouldn’t have been a winner or loser,” Mickelson said.
But he jokingly got in Nicklaus’ way as Els stood over a par putt from just a little longer, and perhaps it was fitting the Big Easy missed.
It gave the Americans a five-point lead, their largest since 2000, when they went on to a record margin of victory.
“We’ve seen this board the last two Ryder Cups,” Woods said of the margin, before sarcastically noting that the lead belonged to Europe. “We’re still a long way away from this thing.”