Late Putting Streak Brings Score to 6.5 to 3.5
MELBOURNE – The International Team will enter Saturday’s play with a 6.5-3.5 advantage in the Presidents Cup, but the margin could have been nearly insurmountable if not for late putting heroics by the United States in Friday’s fourball matches.
Trailing 6-1 in the 13th Presidents Cup and having been dominated in the first two matches completed on Friday, the U.S. was tied in two matches and trailed in the third remaining at the Royal Melbourne Golf Club.
While Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland were battling back from a 2-down deficit with three holes left in the final match of the day, Patrick Cantlay provided the spark the U.S. had been desperately seeking through the first two days of competition.
The world’s seventh-ranked player took advantage of partner Xander Schauffele’s excellent approach shot on the 18th hole of their all-square match, draining a birdie putt to give the U.S. a critical point against Canadian Adam Hadwin and Chile’s Joaquin Niemann.
The normally reserved Cantlay walked his putt into the hole with a fist pump that reverberated to the rest of the U.S. players still on the course.
In the next group through, U.S. captain Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas were locked in a back-and-forth duel with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and South Korea’s Byeong Hun An that also came down to a putting contest on the 18th hole. After the Internationals missed their lengthy birdie putt, Thomas faced his own from just outside of where Cantlay was.
Just like his teammate moments before, Thomas converted his opportunity to secure the full point for the United States. Thomas let out a very audible, “Let’s go!” before embracing Woods.
“I don’t know, I’m speechless,” Thomas told the Golf Channel moments later. “It’s, uh … I’ve been fortunate to make a lot of big putts, and I’ve hit a lot of big shots.
“But to do it with my captain, and an unbelievable teammate, to win the match and hopefully turn the tide of this Presidents Cup … That was awesome.”
Meanwhile, Fowler and Woodland had reeled off consecutive birdies to square their match against South Korea’s Sungjae Im and Australia’s Cameron Smith entering the final hole.
Fowler flared his approach well right of the flag but was given a second chance when Im’s birdie putt missed. Fowler, only on the team as a replacement for injured No. 1 Brooks Koepka, was able to earn the half-point for the U.S. by sinking his par putt after Woodland knocked his birdie attempt a few nervous feet past the hole.
The late heroics brought some drama back to an event the International Team was threatening to run away with. After winning four of the five four-ball matches on Thursday, they won the first two matches Friday and were poised to potentially pick up another two or three points before settling for a split on the day.
“This is the beast. Sometimes it bites you,” International captain Ernie Els told the Golf Channel. “You want to put a spear in it, but it fights back. That’s the nature of this Cup.
“This is probably good what happened in the last couple of holes, so the guys can understand what can happen in the Cup. And saying that, we’re in the lead.”
The International Team will still enter Saturday with a three-point lead in an event they own a 1-1-10 record in.
“It’s perspective, isn’t it?” Els said. “I’ve got to look at where we are, it’s easy to look at where we could have been. … It was looking really unbelievable. But, historically we’ve lost a lot of foursome matches against this side. We tied this afternoon, so we’re in a really good position.”
The U.S. has plenty of work to do, but it will begin Day 3 riding significant momentum.
“Stuff can change so quickly in this format,” Thomas said. “I heard that (Cantlay) hit a great putt to win the hole to flip their match as well. I know one thing, I like our chances a lot more getting those two points as opposed to the other way around.”
Woods, who selected himself with a captain’s pick, is now 2-0 for the week. In the process, he tied Phil Mickelson for the all-time lead with his 26th win in the Presidents Cup, and he matched Mickelson with his 12th victory in foursomes.
“We were both screaming,” Woods said of his reaction to Thomas’ putt. “It was a phenomenal moment, and it was priceless. I’m glad that we were able to experience it together.”
The team leading after the second session has gone on to win 10 of the past 11 Presidents Cups, and this marks just the fourth time the International Team has led or been tied after the second session.
But what appeared to be heading for a route regained significant drama with Cantlay and Schauffele beginning the rally by coming back from a hole down with four to play.
“Ours was a hard-fought match today,” Cantlay said. “And we need to flip the script a little bit, we need to get going.”
The U.S. will need to keep the momentum going Saturday morning without the playing help of their top performer through the first two days. Woods chose to sit himself during Saturday’s Four-ball pairings, with the likelihood that he will be playing during the afternoon’s alternate shot.
“That was kind of the game plan,” Woods said. “It would be hard for me to go all of the sessions.”
Also sitting for the Americans will be former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who is 0-2 this week while returning from knee surgery, Woodland and Bryson DeChambeau.
Meanwhile, Els is wasting no time getting China’s Haotong Li – the only player on either side yet to play – on the course, pairing the Chinese star in the opening match with Australia’s Marc Leishman, who grew up three hours from Royal Melbourne.
They will battle against Thomas, whose pairings with Woods will be broken but he will team with a close friend in Fowler.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to go out there with J.T. and we’ve gotten two points,” Woods said. “J.T.’s playing great, and Rickie played awesome this afternoon. So they’ve been looking forward to playing with one another, they’ve had success before … and send them back out.”
Saturday Four-ball pairings
Marc Leishman/Haotong Li vs. Justin Thomas/Rickie Fowler
Sungjae Im/Abraham Ancer vs. Xander Schauffele/Patrick Cantlay
Hideki Matsuyama/C.T. Pan vs. Patrick Reed/Webb Simpson
Adam Scott/Byeong Hun An vs. Matt Kuchar/Tony Finau
NOTES: Mickelson is not competing this week after having being a member of the U.S. team for the first 12 editions of the President Cup. … The only win for the International Team (excluding Europe) came in 1998, when the event was also held at Royal Melbourne Golf Club. … The 12-man teams will compete Saturday in four four-ball matches in the morning and in four foursomes in the afternoon. The final day will feature 12 singles matches. … All matches are worth one point. … There is no prize money, but the PGA Tour contributes to charities, which are nominated by members of both teams. The PGA Tour distributed $10.7 million in 2017.