MONTREAL — The International team wore black for the first round of the Presidents Cup. That was oh-so-appropriate because they were attending their own funeral.
The International players didn’t win a match in what was truly a Black Thursday for them. It might have been a shutout if not for a magnanimous gesture by the U.S. captain, Jack Nicklaus, who strongly suggested that Phil Mickelson and Woody Austin concede a four-foot par putt to Vijay Singh on the final green. Austin had just holed a clutch par putt from eight feet, and Singh’s putt to halve the match was no gimme. If he’d missed, the Internationals were skunked. Nicklaus said he merely asked Mickelson and Austin what they wanted to do with Vijay’s putt. He’d made his point.
There was no chance that Mickelson, who had a famous flap with Singh about wearing metal spikes at the Masters, would have given him anything but grief until Nicklaus went into statesman mode. Phil and Vijay go together like Michigan and Ohio State. But Nicklaus’s sporting gesture looked like a good call at the end of the day with the Americans leading by a stunning 5-point margin, 5 1/2-1/2.
It was a hard-fought match that nobody deserved to lose, and the draw allowed Mike Weir, the pride of Canada, to escape with half a point.
“You can’t win on the first day,” said Gary Player, the International captain.
But you can come close to losing, and that’s exactly what the International team did. They’ve got 28 more matches to play, including six best-ball matches on Friday, but they have a very big hill to climb.
The Americans have rarely enjoyed a match-play day like this one. At the Ryder Cup, it’s usually the Europeans who come out of the starting gates quickly. A 5-point lead? This is uncharted territory for the U.S.
There were heroes galore for the U.S. Start with Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan, who took on Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy, perhaps the opposing side’s best team. The Americans were 3 up through five holes, but they lost most of that lead on the back before rallying on Stricker’s putter. The par-4 15th was a pivotal hole in many matches, including this one.
Poor second shots by Ogilvy and Stricker led to tricky bogey putts for both teams. Scott missed from eight feet, and Stricker holed a seven-footer to put the Americans 2 up with three to play. Stricker holed an eight-foot birdie putt at 16 to end the match, 3 and 2.
The 15th was dramatic, if not pivotal, in Austin and Mickelson’s match as well. After Mickelson stuck an iron shot to within eight feet, Weir pushed his approach into the greenside bunker. Advantage, U.S. But Singh holed the bunker shot, drawing the biggest roar of the day, and Austin missed the putt. The International team was 1 up.
But Austin made a clutch putt at 16 to halve the hole, and Mickelson rolled in a 15-footer for birdie at the 17th to square the match. Then came the conceded putt and the tie at 18.
Zach Johnson, in a replay of his chip on the 72nd hole at the Masters, rolled a bunker shot to within inches at the 18th to clinch a 1-up victory with Stewart Cink over Rory Sabbatini and Trevor Immelman.
Tiger Woods was Tiger Woods, and he got some timely help from Charles Howell III, who made a 15-foot par putt to win the 16th and a short birdie putt at the 17th for a 3-up win over K.J. Choi and Nick O’Hern.
There were multiple non-heroes for the Internationals. Sabbatini, with the match level, pulled his tee shot into the lake at the 18th hole, which led to a bogey and defeat. Angel Cabrera, 1 down with Ernie Els at the 18th, pushed his drive into a fairway bunker, and Els missed a four-footer for par that would have won the hole and halved the match.
The capper for the International squad came when Stuart Appleby pulled his 3-iron approach to the 18th into a row of trees well left of the green. Forced to take an unplayable lie, Retief Goosen dropped and played their fourth shot from among the hospitality tents beyond the trees. Goosen didn’t get his wedge shot onto the green. They lost the hole, and the match.
Adam Scott was asked if the International players were feeling down about their opening-round effort. “Not so much down,” he said, smiling grimly, “as pissed off.”
Day Two promises to be just as interesting.