Presidents Cup 2019: Justin Thomas kept the American fires burning, even if he flamed out
MELBOURNE — Pity Marc Leishman, at least a little. The man who came into the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne as the beloved Australian son, ready to cover himself in glory before his countrymen and teammates. It might have happened, too, if Tiger Woods, displaying the kind of casual sadism that can ruin a man’s weekend, repeatedly matched him against Justin Thomas in the pairs sessions. Not once, not twice, but three times, which departs from the realm of “unpleasant reality” and into a recurring dystopian nightmare. Leishman lost the first two, snagged a win on Friday foursomes when the pairing gods granted him a reprieve from JT, and salvaged a half point with a miracle 5-down comeback on Saturday afternoon that culminated with a brilliant, somewhat redemptive approach on 18.
Leishman didn’t have his best stuff for most of the weekend, but the poor record was more about his constant American shadow. Armed in obstinance, Thomas refused to concede to the overwhelming narrative of the first two days, which was International dominance mixed with managerial head-scratchers from the U.S. He did that in France a year ago at the Ryder Cup, too, but things got so out of hand at Le Golf National that it didn’t make a difference. It’s different now in Melbourne, where the three points the 2017 PGA Championship winner delivered before Saturday afternoon kept the American heads above water just long enough for them to dodge a few fatal haymakers and rise at the last moment not to kill the fait accompli narrative, quite, but at least to hobble it with a crowbar to the kneecap.
It’s 10-8 going into Sunday singles, courtesy of a resurgent session on Saturday afternoon, but the Americans were only around for that unlikely salvo because Justin Thomas staved off early annihilation and anchored them to the idea of possibility. The Americans won four matches in the first three sessions, and Thomas was involved in three of them. Without him, there’s no hope.
Some context on what he’s done in these events in his young career: Before this weekend, there were just two Americans in history who managed to roll up 10 points in their first 13 international Cup matches (Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup combined, when applicable). Those two men were Sam Snead and Lanny Wadkins—a legend of the game and one of America’s great Ryder Cup heroes, respectively. Nobody could match their torrid pace in the years that followed, and it looked like it might be an impossible task simply because Snead accomplished his mark in the pre-European Ryder Cup era and Wadkins earned three of his wins before Europe joined the U.K. and Ireland in 1977, and four more in 1979 before the new European team had figured out how to compete. Julius Boros and Hale Irwin came the closest, needing just 14 matches, and in the modern era, Davis Love III and Patrick Reed held the mark at 15 matches.
On Saturday morning, with his four-ball victory against Haotong Li and Marc Leishman, Thomas joined Snead and Watkins in the rarefied heights. In just two Presidents Cups and one Ryder Cup, he’s amassed an unbelievable 10-2-1 record, including this dramatic walk-off on Thursday in Melbourne:
As he sought his 10th point in the morning, it became clear fairly early that this win wouldn’t be quite so dramatic as his Friday romp with Tiger. Poor Li, the only player who hadn’t played on either of the first two days. He had nothing to offer, and would have likely shot a number that begins with a 4 on the front nine if forced to play out every hole. Leishman was on his own, and the Fowler/Thomas team was 2 up by the turn. The only emotional moments worth noting on a lazy back nine were Thomas’ apparent irritation at not having a short putt conceded on the 11th, and Leishman’s growing rage at his inability to break through, culminating when he whacked his club against a metal plaque on the 15th tee. Thomas made a short par to tie that hole and gave a fist pump that registered a 4.8 out of 10 on the Tiger Scale. After Li and Leishman missed birdie putts on 16, the stage cleared for Thomas to bury another game-winner. He made the 13-footer—of course he did—and instead of shouting “I love me some me!” as he did on Friday, he whipped off his hat almost before the ball went into the hole and bore down on Li, hand extended, at menacing speed.
Thomas’ mood after moving through the assembly line of TV interviews was subdued, and for good reason. Just as in Paris, his personal success was an anomaly. The Internationals led the other three matches on the course at that point (they’d salvage a half on one of them) and in rapid succession Abraham Ancer hit a match-winning putt in front of Thomas on 16 to win his match (“I still don’t know where the 17th tee is,” his caddie joked after), and a hole away, on 15, Reed and Webb Simpson lost their latest match. Thomas wore the look of someone who felt powerless.
Which, after that morning match, he was—the most one person can win is five points, and Thomas will go for 4½ in his singles session tomorrow. It would have been four-for-four, but some weird energy caught up to Thomas on Saturday afternoon against Leishman and the red-hot Ancer. He and Fowler led 5 up after 10, indomitable, and then the mojo flipped. They lost the lead the same way Hemingway’s character went bankrupt: slowly, and then all at once. Trying to stave off the final disastrous act on 18, Thomas yanked his drive into the unwelcome arms of the low tea trees, and after Rickie slapped it back to the fairway, he hit his worst approach of the match to cede the hole and the half-point. He described himself as “speechless” in the moments after: “It’s unacceptable for us to get a half-point.”
As this was happening, any sane person would have expected the wobbly wheels to finally spin off Tiger’s team. News had just hit the media room that Kessler Karain, Reed’s caddie, had an altercation with a fan. Bryson DeChambeau, who Tiger chose to sit twice, jumped in the stands to sing with the American fans on the first tee, and Tiger himself wore a look like he’d just finished sucking a lemon only to be delivered six dozen more already peeled. They had survived with late escapes twice, just barely, but now the Internationals had lined up for the killing blow …
… except the Americans came on like a house on fire, and Ernie’s troops staggered around the course like they’d fired their final bullets and were reduced to chucking stones at the advancing horde. Every shiny bit of storyline about the superior team spirit and organization of the Internationals, and the blunders of their opponents, got chucked into the bush with the three-foot talking spiders.
The session went 3-1 to the Americans, and now the Internationals have to behave as though this late stumble doesn’t bother them, that they’re happy with the lead, that things are hunky-dory for the singles. But they’ll remember when they could have soared to the heights, only to be dragged back to earth by Justin Thomas—dragged over and over in a lonely and stubborn act until reinforcements could arrive. Now, a little farther from the finish line than they dreamed, they’ll have to wonder if this is just the tail of the snake.