MELBOURNE — There was no sign of Steve McQueen. Or his motorbike. But the late movie star’s compatriots pulled off their mini-version of "The Great Escape” on Day 2 of the 13th Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne. Already 4-1 adrift after Thursday’s four-balls session and at one time down in all five of Friday’s foursomes, the American side somehow contrived to get out of the session all square. Thus, the deficit against the International side remains a just-about manageable three points, 6½-3½.
Perspective, of course, is everything. Though the collective glint in the eyes of the Americans surely spoke to their feeling that this was a great result, the Internationals were understandably struggling to see the eventual 2½-2½ split as a positive.
Although his face was brave and his words positive, International captain Ernie Els was clearly a little deflated by close of play.
“I've got to look at where we are,” Els said. “It's easy to look at where we could have been, because it was looking really unbelievable. But we're still in a very good position. And hey, look at the record we've had in foursomes over the last 25 years. For us to come out even in the session is like a win for us. We would have taken that at the start of the day.”
The momentum shifts—all three—came late as the home team’s early momentum dissipated amid a flurry of U.S. birdies. Playing alongside Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay provided the first, holing from 15 feet on the 18th green for a match-clinching birdie against Adam Hadwin and Joaquin Niemann. Coming from 1 down with four to play, it was just the sort of flip the American side desperately needed.
And there was more. From maybe three feet farther away and almost exactly on Cantlay’s line, Justin Thomas made another birdie putt to claim another unlikely point for the visitors against Byeong Hun An and Hideki Matsuyama. It’s safe to say Thomas’ partner and captain, Tiger Woods, was rather pleased by that outcome. Only rarely has the 15-time major champion been more animated.
“We were both screaming,” Woods said. “It was a phenomenal moment, and it was priceless. So I'm glad we were able to experience it together.
“At one point, we were down in all five matches, so it looked pretty bleak, but the guys turned it around," Woods said. "They played phenomenal coming in. It was important for us to end the way we did, and it totally changed the last hour.”
Still the Americans were not done. Two down with three to play against Cameron Smith and Sungjae Im, Gary Woodland and Rickie Fowler birdied the 16th and 17th to tie the match. But even then there was one more bullet to dodge. After Im’s narrow miss for birdie and the match on the closing green, Fowler resolutely holed from four feet for what had, for long enough, appeared an unlikely half.
“It's better than a loss, that's for sure,” said Fowler, celebrating his 31st birthday on Friday. “We wanted to keep stretching them. I felt like we gave them a couple of holes with three-putts. We definitely could have been a little better on the greens, but we made some great putts coming in.”
All of that endlessly fascinating back and forth only underlined the truism that foursomes has forever been golf’s darkest art. The most unforgiving form of the most unforgiving game, a place where concealment is all but impossible. With only one ball in play, there is nowhere to hide. Post-play guilt is every misplay’s companion. Every bad shot counts. Every bad shot is laid bare.
Foursomes—in which one member of each partnership tees off on the odd-numbered holes, the other on the evens—also represents the most volatile format within any team contest. Holes tend to change hands almost constantly, a likelihood enhanced by the slickness of the Royal Melbourne greens. Three-putting, another perennial feature of foursomes play, was commonplace. By way of illustration, only 37 of the 86 holes completed in the five matches were halved. So there was a lot going on, from the initial dominance of the International team and the eventual awakening of the Americans.
Still, for all that his team rescued a potentially disastrous situation, and while there is no doubt that Woods more than merits his playing role, many will now be questioning his off-course decision-making and leadership. Given the lethargy displayed by so many of the 12-man lineup, arriving in Australia as late as Monday afternoon after a 26-hour flight from the Bahamas seems more and more like utter folly. Some might even say arrogant.
Whatever the ultimate verdict on the Woods captaincy—the eventual destination of the trophy will have much to do with that—a catalog of near-total disaster ensued early for the Americans. For one thing, Dustin Johnson’s participation in these matches is already looking like just one more mistake. Four months on from his last competitive outing, the former U.S. Open champion has lost twice and has yet to see the last two holes on the Royal Melbourne composite course. Teamed with Matt Kuchar, Johnson lamely capitulated to the solid play of Louis Oosthuizen and Adam Scott by 3 and 2.
“Our job as the older guys on the team is to get the youngsters fired up,” said Oosthuizen, 37. “We are just trying to lead by example.”
Sadly, the same cannot be said for Patrick Reed, another pointless performer after two matches. Paired alongside Webb Simpson for a second time, the 2018 Masters champion went down weakly by 4 and 3 to Marc Leishman and Abraham Ancer. Which was bad enough. But Reed further tarnished his reputation with an exaggerated digging action on the 11th green after making a putt. No matter the provocation, or the state of the match, or the quality of his play, reminding the world of his sand-moving indiscretion seemed like a less than judicious move.