With surgical singles win, Tiger Woods proved an upset wasn’t going to happen on his watch

December 15, 2019

Even before his clinching birdie dropped, with his ball still rolling toward the cup on the 16th hole at Royal Melbourne, Tiger Woods removed his cap, turned and strode to shake the hand of his upstart opponent.

Abraham Ancer had put up a gutty fight, but guts alone don’t lead to glory against Tiger in peak form.

With a surgical 3-and-2 win in the opening singles match of the most tightly contested — and entertaining — Presidents Cup in years, Woods had earned a crucial point. He’d also made one.

An upset-in-the-making wasn’t going to come to pass.

Not on his watch, anyway.

Now, with his on-course work complete, Woods, the playing captain, swapped his clubs for an earpiece and watched his American teammates follow in his wake, riding a Sunday comeback to a 16-to-14 victory over a game International squad. The win puts the U.S.’s all-time Presidents Cup record at 11-1-1.

“We relied on one another as a team, and we did it — together,” an emotional Woods said afterward. “This Cup wasn’t going to be given to us. We had to go earn it. And we did.”

For three days Down Under, it seemed that the mighty Yanks might not, as a lopsided match on paper morphed into a taut competition on grass. On the strength of gritty play and sharp-eyed strategizing from their captain, Ernie Els, the Internationals built an early lead in the four-ball and foursome sessions and clung to a 10-8 edge heading into the final day.

Their advantage gave a jolt of intensity to an event that has often lacked for drama in the past.

It helped, of course, that a lightning rod named Patrick Reed was also in the mix.

Dogged by a recent rules fiasco, Reed came into the singles session with an 0-3 record for the week, his reputation as a match-play killer diminished. Captain America? Maybe not. But a regal irritant, anyway.

Jeered persistently by fans at Royal Melbourne, Reed, a captain’s pick, earned a measure of revenge on Sunday with a 4-and-2 whooping of an out-of-sorts C.T. Pan. As Pan struggled with a nervy putter, Reed displayed the deadly putting stroke that had earned him his superhero moniker in the first place. When his birdie on the opening hole dropped to give him a lead that he would never relinquish, Reed pumped his fist and glared at the gallery — a gesture he repeated several times throughout the round.

He was 4-up through 4 holes, and by that point, the scoreboard was beginning to bleed American red. Playing behind Reed, Dustin Johnson overpowered Haotong Li 4 and 2, while Patrick Cantlay reeled off seven birdies in 15 holes en route to a 3-and-2 victory over Joaquin Neimann.

Meanwhile, matches that the Internationals appeared to have in hand flipped gradually, then suddenly, in the Americans’ favor, with Tony Finau clawing back from 4-down for a tie against Hideki Matsuyama, and Matt Kuchar digging himself out of a hole to earn a tie with Louis Oosthuizen. The U.S. also got full points from Xander Schauffele, 2-and-1 over Adam Scott, and Webb Simpson, who dispatched Byeong Hun An by the same score.

For all the rightful credit heaped on Els for his team-building efforts and battle-planning on a firm, fast, nuanced course, his counterpart, Woods, proved to be no slouch as a strategist, either. Widely questioned for his decision to sit out both Saturday sessions, Woods was vindicated when his team used the day to narrow their deficit.

On Sunday, Woods made another astute call by putting his best player out first: himself. Up against the feisty Ancer, who, along with Sungjae Im, had been the International’s best performer for the week, Woods set the tone with a cold-blooded performance, seizing control of the match with an arsenal of shots — stingers, sweeping draws, controlled fades, biting wedges — that remains unrivaled in its variety and precision.

On the par-4 16th, a 3-wood off the tee and a pin high approach left him with a 10-foot potential clincher.

Was there any doubt?

As his ball spilled toward the hole, off came Tiger’s hat and out went his hand, a slightly premature match-closing gesture that could have passed for metaphor.

You got the sense that he knew where things were headed all along.

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