MELBOURNE — Tiger Woods grabbed the attention Thursday at Royal Melbourne Golf Club, which should have been expected. But the International team grabbed the early lead, which was, frankly, wholly unexpected.
Call it the 1998 redux, with the Internationals on fire and the USA misfiring. Not a good omen for Uncle Sam or Captain Woods.
A U.S. team hasn’t trailed in the Presidents Cup since early in the second term of George W. Bush, but when the Americans awoke Friday morning, they were staring at a surprising three-point deficit. A heavy underdog with seven rookies on the team, the Internationals, behind the hot hands of Louis Oosthuizen and Adam Scott, took its first advantage at the end of any session since the second day in 2005 at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Virginia. The Internationals had not won an opening session since taking foursomes on Day 1 the same year.
“A little different from previous Presidents Cups. It’s a great start against an unbelievable team,” said International captain Ernie Els, whose team took its largest lead after an opening session, bettering the 3½-1½ International lead after Day 1 in 1998 at Royal Melbourne—the year of its only victory in the 12 meetings. “We’ve got a long way to go, but this is an unbelievable start. We haven’t had a start like this in many years. We’ll celebrate this little session victory, and then we’ve got a couple more to go.”
Woods, the second playing captain in Presidents Cup history, did his part in the playing category, teaming with Justin Thomas to win the opening match, 4 and 3, over Australia’s Marc Leishman and Chile’s Joaquin Niemann. The reigning Masters champion, Woods tried to set a tone with birdies on his first two holes and three of his first five. He converted six birdies in all, the most among the 20 competitors.
He needed more of himself spread around.
“This is a long four days. I mean, we have to go earn this cup,” Woods said after a tidy performance that included a deft chip-in from a scraggly lie right of the fifth green and birdies on the final two holes after the Internationals managed to hang around for much of the day. “Just because we lost the session doesn't mean the Cup's over. There's a long way to go. A lot of points available. The guys will regroup, and we'll come out tomorrow ready to go.”
Playing in his first Presidents Cup since 2013, Woods, 43, won for the 25th time in event’s history, one shy of Phil Mickelson’s record. Woods also triumphed for the first time in four-ball play at Royal Melbourne in five tries.
“Tiger was working well out of the two of us today,” Thomas said with smirk, when asked what worked well between the teammates.
Not much else was working for Team USA, however. The U.S. led for a total of two holes combined in the final four matches, all defeats.
On the International side, there were many gritty efforts, most notably by Oosthuizen, the former Open champion, who was coming off a second-place finish at the Australian Open. The lone South African on Els’ team, Oosthuizen improved to 7-5-1 in team play. He birdied three of his first five holes to give partner Abraham Ancer of Mexico some time to gain his footing, and the pair never trailed in a 4-and-3 decision over rookie Gary Woodland and Dustin Johnson, who hadn’t competed since the Tour Championship in August after undergoing knee surgery.
Scott, in his record ninth appearance for the International team, had perhaps the most satisfying victory for the home team. The Aussie joined with South Korea’s Byeong Hun An, the replacement for injured Jason Day, in a 2-and-1 win over Presidents Cup newcomers Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau. Scott, 39, won for only the fourth time in 16 four-ball matches. He improved to 4-9-3 in the format after converting five birdies as well as a clinching par on 17.
“There's a lot of buildup and trying not to put pressure on myself; it's almost impossible,” said Scott, who has only a tie in his debut in 2003 among his previous eight appearances. “It's important playing here in Australia, but we did a nice job today. Ben had me covered early while I was shaky. After a couple holes, I settled down and hit some shots. It was good fun.”
And the fun continued.
Korean rookie Sungjae Im, who led the PGA Tour in eagles last season, eagled his first career hole in the Presidents Cup, and that hole-out from 27 yards ended up being the difference as he and Canada’s Adam Hadwin edged U.S. rookies Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, 1 up.
Patrick Reed, heckled sporadically throughout the day, sank a clutch 11-foot birdie at the 16th hole to bring his match to all square after he and Webb Simpson trailed from the third hole. But Hideki Matsuyama answered with a 27-foot dagger to restore a 1-up advantage. The Japanese star and C.T. Pan of Chinese Taipei then closed it out for the Internationals’ fourth point.
They enjoyed by far their best day since they won 7½ out of 10 points in the combined third and fourth sessions of 1998. It was a dream beginning for a team with only three players in the top 25 in the world.
“It was very important for us. This is the start we needed,” Scott said. “We haven't seen this for a while. We've got to try to keep this lead now as long as possible and hopefully the week runs out.”