SAN FRANCISCO — On Thursday, the International team dodged bullets like James Bond. On Friday, they turned into Harry Houdini with a series of amazing match-defying escapes.
They split the four-ball session with the Americans, three matches apiece, despite being down in four or five matches most of the day. The U.S. has a slim 6 1/2 – 5 1/2 lead in the Cup and is in for a fight this weekend.
Tim Clark practically wished in his faint-hearted eagle putt on the final green to rescue a 1-up victory and keep the Internationals within a point of the U.S. going into Saturday’s double session, which features five morning foursome matches and five afternoon four-ball matches. (Play begins at 10:45 a.m. Eastern.)
It’s tempting to think of the Internationals as a gritty, scrappy bunch of players who have kept themselves in the Cup with smoke and mirrors despite being outplayed by the Americans.
From that point of view, it seems like only a matter of time before the superior American putters wear them down and pull away. But the Americans have squandered their chances to bury the International team two days in a row, and it’s beginning to look like it will be close until the very end.
On Friday, the Internationals had only one steady lead all day but pulled out two late wins with clutch play by Ernie Els and Mike Weir and Vijay Singh and Clark. If this Presidents Cup is still competitive on Sunday, Captain Greg Norman has these men, among others, to thank.
“It certainly didn’t look good there for a while, and when you come out of a day like that tied and only one point back, we are feeling good,” said Clark. “It seems like most of the close matches that have come down to the last couple of holes, we’ve been able to salvage a halve or even win a point, which is huge.”
The men who stood tallest for the Internationals were the men who stand smallest — Clark, the gritty 5-foot-7 South African, and Weir, the game 5-foot-9 Canadian and former Masters champion. They helped engineer reversals in their matches when an American landslide looked imminent.
Els and Weir were 1 down to Anthony Kim and Jim Furyk with three holes to play when Weir buried a 10-footer for birdie on 16 to square the match. Els, still battling a frosty putter, rolled in a clutch 12-footer at 17 that won the hole, putting them 1 up with one to play.
Then came one of Weir’s career moments. He blocked his drive into the right trees on the par-5 18th, and it settled near a retaining fence. If he weren’t a lefty, he wouldn’t have had a swing. But he did, and he took advantage of it. Weir ripped a fairway wood that bounded up the fairway, onto the green and 20 feet past the pin. He hustled out of the rough to get a look and high-fived assistant captain Frank Nobilo and team captain Greg Norman en route to the green.
Weir, not a long hitter, said it was one of the better shots he’s played. “Yeah, I was pretty fired up about that one,” he admitted with a grin.
When Furyk couldn’t convert his eagle attempt, Weir’s eagle putt was conceded, giving the Internationals a 2-up win and crucial point, not to mention a shot of momentum.
“That was sweet,” Els said of his partner’s big shot. “I was in the bunker on the right and saw a ball come out of there like a rocket. I couldn’t see who was playing. Mike hit an unbelievable shot.”
Clark came up just as big. He and Singh were 1 down with two holes to play after U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover chipped in for birdie from just over the 16th green. The Internationals birdied the short par-4 17th to get back to all square. Clark, the short hitter in the group, busted a fairway wood on the 18th from 248 yards to within 15 feet of the hole. He was the only one in a group of power hitters to reach the green in two, an upset in itself.
“Greg told me what Mike had done there so I knew I had to go for it,” Clark said. “I had a perfect 3-wood yardage and I had to get all of it to get there.”
Though his stroke with his long putter looked shaky, his putt trundled to the left edge of the cup and toppled in. Clark dropped to his knees in relief, or perhaps surprise, as the Internationals stole another point from the U.S. squad and earned a push in the four-ball session.
Asked about his putt, which barely squeezed in the side door, Clark grunted in relief and admitted he wasn’t sure he’d gotten it to the hole. “I thought it needed to go a little,” he said.
So, are the Internationals about to run out of miracles, or are the Americans ripe for an upset? You might have an answer by Saturday night, but this is starting to shape up like a potential classic — unlike Montreal in 2007, when the U.S. took a seven-point lead into Sunday.
There were plenty of other heroes and highlights to go around Friday.
Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker remained an unstoppable force. They rolled over what figured to be Norman’s top duo, Geoff Ogilvy and Angel Cabrera, 5 and 3. Woods seems to have found his new permanent partner. They’ll play together again in the Saturday foursomes session, and if they don’t team up in the afternoon it will be the upset of the week.
Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard came up big, too. While Woods has been on cruise control, Mickelson has been on fire. This may be the first team match, Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, where America’s Twin Towers are playing up to their resumes. Mickelson poured in five birdies, including three in a row starting at the sixth hole, as he and Leonard knocked off Retief Goosen and Adam Scott, 3 and 2. Leonard had his moments, too, coming through with a clutch birdie putt for a win at 14 and the match-winner at 16.
It was a nice recovery by Leonard, who missed a short putt on the final green in the final match Thursday to hand a half-point to the Internationals. “I was pretty mad at myself last night,” Leonard admitted. “I went to the putting green and hit some putts and cooled off a little.”
He also played a joke in the team room to let everybody know he wasn’t in tirade mode. Furyk’s caddie, Mike (Fluff) Cowan, lined up some shots of water at the bar. Leonard stormed in, slammed the door, threw his stuff down and walked straight over to the bar. “I took these five shots like they were nothing and then slammed a beer,” Leonard said. “The beer was real and that tasted really good. But just to kind of let everybody know that I was fine, and that I was ready to come out and play today.”
Leonard said some of the wives were a little worried when he was knocking back the shots but his own wife, Amanda, knew exactly what he was doing.
Saturday’s doubleheader will be crucial, especially Saturday morning’s foursomes. That’s the format the Americans have historically dominated, and that’s where the U.S. put the Cup away two years ago in Montreal by sweeping all five early matches.
“History shows we’ve done better in foursomes, but we can’t rely on history,” Stricker said, “We’ve got to go out and win points.”
It looks as if every one of them will be important and hard-earned.