American Bulldog

American Bulldog

Woody Austin's clutch putting saved a half-point for the United States.
Robert Beck/SI

Playing in their first international competition as professionals, the rookies on the United States Presidents Cup team did themselves proud on Thursday.

Hunter Mahan was rock solid from the start, rolling in a birdie putt on the very first hole. He and Steve Stricker never trailed in their match against Geoff Ogilvy and Adam Scott. Lucas Glover, paired with Scott Verplank, made a 12-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole for a 2-up lead against Stuart Appleby and Retief Goosen. Glover then sealed the deal with a great bunker shot on the 17th.

But the oldest member of the squad, 43-year-old Woody Austin, turned in the best rookie performance of the day. Paired with Phil Mickelson — the only American to have played in every Presidents Cup — the duo went from 2 up through four holes to 3 down through 11 against Vijay Singh and Mike Weir, the home-crowd favorite. But Austin sparked a comeback with a 25-foot birdie putt to win the 12th hole. After an inspired Mickelson made a 20-footer to win the 17th hole, Austin came through again by holing a 13-foot par putt on 18. After the Americans conceded Singh’s 3 1/2-foot putt, the match ended in a tie.

“It was probably, in my four years in the Presidents Cup, one of the toughest matches I’ve ever been in,” Weir said. That means it was tailor made for a scrapper like Albert Woody Austin II.

The Kansas resident seems to play with a perpetual chip on his shoulder. At Southern Hills in August during the PGA Championship, he scratched and clawed his way to a second-place finish, his best performance in a major. His logic was fuzzy when he tried to explain how he outplayed Woods while shooting 70 to Tiger’s 63, but one thing was clear: the man in the ugly shirt was not going to back down from anyone on the course or in the media tent.

“Woody is fiery, he’s competitive, and I think that that’s what you need,” Woods said after learning that Austin had qualified to play at Royal Montreal. “You need someone that will get out there and give it his best and give it everything he’s got, give his heart and soul in each and every round.”

Chris DiMarco was that guy on the 2005 Presidents Cup team, willing to stick his nose in any fight and fist-pump his way out. He paired with Mickelson to win 3 1/2 of a possible 4 points in foursomes and four-ball matches. But DiMarco’s spotty results this season and a recent shoulder operation left the role of fiery competitor open. Austin has filled it perfectly so far, and he meshed well with Mickelson on Thursday.

“I kept kidding Phil,” Nicklaus said, “‘We’re going to send Woody out there and get you on the board early in the week!’ So that’s what we did. And Woody was very good today. I thought he was terrific.”

Mickelson recognized Austin’s contribution. “The back nine, [Austin] hit some of the greatest shots — some of the best shots in the clutch you’ll see.”

Mickelson knows what he needs to do when he plays with an emotional partner like Austin or DiMarco, and it seems to bring out his best golf. Sure, Lefty has to make his share of birdies, but he gets to be the calm guy, the team guy, a source of wisdom and advice. In other words, Mickelson gets to be a leader, and that’s not the case when he’s paired with Woods or Jim Furyk.

“[Phil] did everything that he possibly could to keep me in good spirits when I wasn’t playing well,” Austin said Thursday evening. “The fact that he was still that much fun to play with in an event like this says a lot. He was just like, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to have fun.'”

While Mickelson was the calmer of the two, Austin’s enthusiasm, like DiMarco’s, was contagious. Fists knocked after made putts, high-fives flew, and it was clear that Mickelson wanted to show the world that he can be counted on in the clutch.

After conceding the final putt to the International team, Austin praised Mickelson for carrying the load, telling a TV reporter that he had been ” riding my Clydesdale.” In truth, Austin helped spur that Clydesdale to victory.