SAN FRANCISCO — It began as a quiet Thursday afternoon among Harding Park’s weathered cypress trees beneath a drab, leaden sky. It ended with warm sunlight, do-or-die shots and a double dose of match-play drama.
You didn’t have to care about the Presidents Cup to enjoy this day, when momentum ebbed and flowed like the Bay Area’s famous fog. All you had to do was like golf. It was a compelling start as the United States eked out a one-point lead, 3 1/2 – 2 1/2, over the International team after six foursomes (alternate-shot) matches.
Match play is golf’s most entertaining format, especially team match play. You saw that Thursday when the Internationals jumped off to a surprisingly strong start, actually leading in four of six matches at one point before the Americans came back strong. So strong, in fact, that it looked very possible they would grab five of six points and dominate this event the way they did two years ago in Montreal. A mix of heroic shots and flubs at the end left the Americans with a one-point lead.
The biggest stroke of the day was a short putt on the final green in the final match. The U.S. team needed a two-putt par to win the match, but Jim Furyk left the first putt four feet short and Justin Leonard lipped out the par putt to halve the match against Retief Goosen and Y.E. Yang. The International team now heads into Friday’s matches down only one point instead of two.
“Did we think we were going to be up, 4-2? Yes, we really did,” said Fred Couples, the U.S. captain. “But it won’t be the last putt ever missed at the Presidents Cup, and it won’t be the last time a little bit of a reversal was done.”
There was a minor misunderstanding on that green, too, when it appeared that Retief Goosen was about to concede Leonard’s par putt. Goosen later explained to Norman that he thought the match was already lost. There was some confusion on the green, but afterward everyone was satisfied by the explanation.
We learned some important things on Day One of the matches.
• Tiger Woods may have finally found a match-play partner. The answer appears to be easy-going Steve Stricker, the Wisconsin native with the smooth putting stroke. They meshed well. Woods hit the greens, Stricker holed the putts. As a team, they missed only two fairways and two greens; Geoff Ogilvy and Ryo Ishikawa looked hopelessly overmatched and fell, 6 and 4. American captain Fred Couples obviously took notice because they’ll play together again in Friday’s four-ball matches. The only other pairing he kept intact was Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink.
Stricker would have made a great partner for anyone because he’s an excellent iron player and one of the best putters on Tour. Woods joked that he had to stroke only four putts.
“We had Steve putting on every hole which, trust me, is a pretty nice feeling,” Woods said.
It helped that Stricker is at ease playing in Tiger’s group.
“We have been playing together for the last month and a half,” Stricker said, referring to frequent rounds together during the FedEx Cup playoffs. “So that made things easier. I did feel a little extra pressure. I was comfortable with him as my partner, but I wanted to make sure he was comfortable with me. I didn’t want him to feel like he had to hold up my end as well as his. We did a lot of good things, it was a lot of fun.”
• We learned that reports of the death of Adam Scott’s golf game were greatly exaggerated, and that captain Greg Norman is no fool. Scott, the Australian star who has struggled all year while plummeting from No. 3 in the world to No. 65, resembled his old self. It was a positive sign for the Internationals when he confidently ripped his drive at the 344-yard, par-4 17th hole. Even he couldn’t hide a satisfied smile after that shot rolled onto the left fringe, settling just off the green. His partner, Ernie Els, chipped it close, and Scott holed the putt to close out the match, 2 and 1, over Hunter Mahan and Sean O’Hair.
There was pressure on Scott and his captain because Scott was a controversial wild-card selection. At least for today, Norman’s choice looked every bit as smart as Nick Faldo’s Ryder Cup pick of Ian Poulter, who went on to win four points.
“Adam hit it so good today,” Els said. “I missed a lot of birdie putts. If I make putts, it could have been over three or four holes ago. I had a great partner and obviously he was a great pick.”
The day was a relief for Scott. “It was good to get a point,” he said. “Personally, it feels good. Ernie and I always do well together. This morning, I haven’t felt like that for a while. The juices were really flowing and I had one of those feelings that I used to have a lot.”
• We learned that champions can’t rest on their laurels, not with the fickle nature of 18-hole matches. The four major champions of 2009 all lost, and for the most part didn’t play up to their standards. Two embarrassing moments come to mind.
Masters champion Angel Cabrera and Camilo Villegas were 1 down on the 18th tee against Kenny Perry and Zach Johnson. Cabrera pounded a long drive that landed in the right rough, bounced a couple of times and trickled into a fairway bunker. Villegas tried a desperate shot, a hybrid from the bunker, and lined a bullet that caromed off the far end of the bunker wall and flew back toward him. The ball came to rest near the left edge of the bunker, leaving Cabrera an awkward shot that he could move only 80 yards or so into the right rough. When Villegas followed that with an iron shot over the green into thick rough, the International duo conceded the match from the fairway.
Yang, winner of the PGA Championship, provided the second ugly moment for the Internationals. Having just watched Jim Furyk flub a short bunker shot to the fringe on the 16th green, Yang had a great opportunity to get up and down with his own bunker shot to win the hole and cut the U.S. lead to 1 up. Instead, he bladed the ball, which clanked off the top of the flagstick — a lucky break because it was flying to the far side of the green otherwise. His partner, Retief Goosen, missed the 20-footer for par. They halved the hole with bogeys, which would have cost them the match if not for Leonard’s short miss on the 18th.
The duo of Open champions, Cink and Glover, stumbled near the end of their match, which they lost to Vijay Singh and Robert Allenby, 1 down. Glover hammered a good drive to the fringe on the par-4 17th, and Cink’s putt rolled two and a half feet past. Allenby pushed his drive to the right and Singh’s approach settled 20 feet from the hole. The U.S. players had just evened the match at 16, and looked as if they’d take a 1 up lead to the 18th. Instead, Allenby rolled in his long birdie putt, and Glover missed. The Internationals went 1 up and halved the 18th for the crucial point of the day.
• We also learned that there must be a little magic in that pairing of Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim. They starred at last year’s Ryder Cup and rose to the occasion again. They plodded along unimpressively (Kim even semi-shanked an iron shot) until the middle of the back nine. Instead of trying to drive the green at the short par-4 13th, Mickelson laid up in the fairway and Kim worked his wedge magic, sticking his shot to three feet. They made birdie to even the match with Mike Weir and Tim Clark and birdied the next three holes to earn the first point of the match with a 3-and-2 victory.
“We didn’t play the best first 10 holes, obviously,” Mickelson said. “But sometimes you just need one little shot, one little spark to ignite a round, and Anthony certainly did it for us.”
• Finally, we learned that the Ryder Cup does not have a monopoly on controversy. When Geoff Ogilvy prepared to putt on the fourth green after Woods had already made birdie, a cell phone went off. And it kept going off. The phone actually belonged to a marshal working at the hole. Then, when Ogilvy finally regrouped and hit the putt, a fan tried to disturb him by shouting the standard line from Caddyshack, “Noonan!” Ogilvy missed the putt.
“One of the marshals had a cell phone, and it kept going off,” Woods said. “The only part that was intentional was the guy yelling out, which was uncalled for. This is not what golf is all about. We all felt bad for Geoff.”
It was a blemish on an otherwise memorable and exciting day.
“We wanted to get out of the day with pretty close to a push,” Norman said. “Nobody really played poorly. At the end of the day, I think the performance of my team was exceptional and we are happy. We are not ecstatic, but we are happy.”
The best thing about the first day is that it carries the promise of a potential close, hard-fought competition. The Internationals, heavy underdogs, are still very much in this fight.