JERSEY CITY, N.J. — At 3 p.m. at windy Liberty National, the leaderboard bled American red. The 12th Presidents Cup was on the verge of becoming the one-sided stars-and-stripes fest oddsmakers thought it would.
Three hours later, much had changed.
Minutes after 6 p.m., Phil Mickelson missed a putt from inside four feet and covered his mouth in disgust. His captains had similar reactions. Jim Furyk’s knees buckled. Tiger Woods shut his eyes.
The Americans were thisclose to taking a four-point edge into the second day at Liberty National Golf Club, but they’ll settle for a 3.5 to 1.5 advantage.
“That’s about as intense as it gets,” said Marc Leishman, who teamed with Jason Day to split with Mickelson and Kevin Kisner in the final match of the day. “You have all your teammates there and all the American guys, and the match is on the line. So you know, it’s obviously disappointing, but like Jason said…”
“…a half point is better than none,” Day said, picking up his partner.
Playing under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, the gusting wind wrecked havoc. Adam Scott and Branden Grace couldn’t figure out their yardages on the short, gusty par-3 10th, and both airmailed the green into hazards. Players often missed greens short. Fowler’s hat blew off his head on the 7th hole. Pants flapped in the wind like flags. Loose napkins rolled through fairways like tumbleweeds. The roof of the media center rattled like thunder.
But when the dust settled and the loose trash was gathered, the U.S. found itself in excellent position with four more sessions of matches to come.
Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler, teeing off in front of a group of golf legends and three former U.S. presidents, put the first ball in the air at 1:06 p.m. and wrapped up their match in time to hit happy hour in Manhattan (if they wanted to), thumping Charl Schwartzel and Hideki Matsuyama 6 and 4. The U.S. won its other two points when Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth beat Si Woo Kim and Emiliano Grillo 5 and 4, and Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar took down Jhonattan Vegas and Adam Scott 1 up. South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Grace won for the Internationals, beating Florida State alums Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger 3 and 1.
Thomas and Fowler seemed like a no-brainer pairing. Thomas, a Presidents Cup rookie, won five times on Tour in 2016-17 and claimed the FedEx Cup last week. Fowler won once in ’17, played this event in 2015 and was on the winning U.S. Ryder Cup team last year. Both are young Snapchatting, Instagramming, #SB2K16ing stars.
They lost the 2nd hole, but the match turned on the 3rd. Thomas tugged his approach left, and Fowler was stuck with a tight lie 24 yards from the pin. Fowler pitched it, checked it, then watched as it slowly rolled down the ridge and inch toward the cup. A spectator a few feet from Fowler knew it was in the whole time.
“Oh, look at this,” he said. “Oh! Look at this!”
The crowd roared and high-fived with approval when it dropped in for a birdie.
“That was definitely a big turn of events,” Thomas said. “I feel like we were definitely on the better side of the hole when it comes to missing that green.”
Fowler and Thomas then took their first lead at the 4th when Fowler stayed hot and rolled in a 12-footer for birdie. He then blasted his ball off the 5th tee and waltzed down the fairway.
“Rickie, do you need anything to eat?” asked Tabitha Furyk, wife of assistant captain Jim. Fowler shook his head no, then raised his arm and pointed toward the clouds. “I’m riding high!”
Indeed he was. He and Thomas won the 5th, 7th, 9th, 11th and 12th and then put it away at 4:12 p.m. by winning the 14th hole.
If Fowler and Thomas appeared unfazed by the wind that could stem from their scouting trip to Liberty National about a month ago. That day they played the course in similar conditions — with the wind blowing the same direction. (“Rick shot 10 under that day, by the way,” Thomas said.)
As Fowler and Thomas finished, Spieth and Reed were 4 up and the other three matches were all square.
Spieth and Reed, currently the game’s hottest team-event duo (they went 2-1-1 at the Ryder Cup last year) continued to dominate. On Thursday, they were 4 up after seven, and although Kim and Grillo cut that deficit in half after 10, Spieth drained a 33-footer on 11 to push it back to 3 up, and they closed it out three holes later.
“Other than the flip on 11, this was a pretty boring day for us,” Spieth said, “but boring is what we needed today.”
Johnson and Kuchar, who also teamed up at the Ryder Cup last year, trailed early against Vegas and Scott and didn’t take their first lead until they birdied the par-3 16th after Johnson hit it to seven feet and Kuchar made the putt. They pushed the final two holes to win 1 up and finished the round bogey-free.
But the Internationals had the upper hand in the final two contests.
Koepka opened the third match with a massive drive, oohing and aahing the jam-packed 1st-tee crowd — including presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — with a 365-yard drive. Berger knocked the approach close and they won the hole with a birdie, but they lost their lead on the 3rd and never regained it, finally falling on No. 17.
Kisner and Mickelson led Leishman and Day 3 up through seven, but the International duo won four straight from the 8th to the 11th (highlighted by Leishman’s chip-in for eagle on the 9th). Mickelson and Kisner tied them on 17 and the match was halved after both teams bogeyed 18, with Mickelson whiffing a four-footer for the win.
Four more sessions remain, beginning with Friday’s five four-ball matchups starting at 11:35 a.m.
“We’ve got to kind of regroup here,” Day said. “The American side is obviously very, very talented and stacked, but I think our team and our boys are ready to rally behind everyone, and hopefully we can finish strong later on in the week.”