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Presidents Cup 2019: The grace of Adam Scott, International team stalwart

December 13, 2019

MELBOURNE — To discuss Adam Scott’s smile, you must first discuss Adam Scott’s looks.

Please don’t fire a bullet through your computer screen or throw your phone into the nearest full bathtub—I swear the rest of this post will be less unsettling than the first line. It’s not my fault, anyway. It was the inescapable Fanatics, those professional fans clad in International yellow and armed with bespoke songs for every player … blame them for this “good looks” business. Friday morning at the Presidents Cup, before Scott and Louis Oosthuizen opened the foursomes session, the Fanatics serenaded the Aussie to the tune of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

“We’ve got the best-looking golfer on our team, we’ve got the best-looking golfer on our team … ”

The rest of the fans laughed, although not quite as much as they had on Thursday. Because I was on my second viewing, I decided to look away from the Fanatics and at the players, standing beside each other for a pre-round photograph near the tee. Next to Scott, Oosthuizen was cracking up—“They were singing about me,” he’d later joke—but Scott, in what should have been an embarrassing situation, just stood there with a small smile on his face. I’m telling you, though, don’t underestimate that smile—it was perfect. Generous enough to show appreciation, reserved enough to show humility, but brief enough that it never boiled over into vanity. The pitfalls of such a moment, when a group of shameless men sing about how handsome you are to thousands of people, are manifold: arrogance, shyness, annoyance, smugness. He never even came close to touching any of those, because he knew how to smile.

That’s plenty of that kind of talk—let’s just say he’s not the kind of person you can imagine slipping and falling into a mud puddle, or saying something crass at a dinner party, or using the bathroom. He’s a “Downton Abbey” character come to life, minus the elitism.

Here at the Presidents Cup, Scott has got everything to play for. This is his ninth appearance, an International team record (Phil Mickelson’s got him beat overall with 12), and Scott is tied for second on the International all-time wins list and first on the all-time loss list. His overall record, now 16-20-5, looks much better when you consider that the team is 0-7-1 in his appearances. To get anywhere close to .500 while aboard that tipsy wagon is practically Herculean. Now, though, there’s a new culture—Ernie Els decided to take this thing seriously, and his fearless team is delivering shock after shock to the sleepy Americans. With that change, Scott has a chance on the late side of his career to make his mark in this competition and set the tone for a theoretical future where this event is more than just a biennial throttling.

Scott won in Thursday four-ball, but his role in Friday foursomes with Oosthuizen loomed larger still because Els designated them as his first team out. To win the first point is to choke the life out of the opposition, almost imperceptibly, and limit their potential damage. It can affect every other match on the course, and that’s especially true with a big lead—seeing a “5-1” on the board has dispiriting potential for the trailing team.


David Cannon/Getty Images

After the songs, Scott was off with a far better opening tee shot than Thursday's debacle. In black sweater, green collared shirt, white pants, and white wingtip shoes, Scott cut a slim and elegant figure, but he wasn’t the only one with presence. Dustin Johnson came on like a gunslinger, laconic where Scott is measured, imposing where Scott is refined, bringing with him a history of Cup success and a 3-1 record with playing partner Matt Kuchar. To watch Johnson's unconscious swagger is to watch something at least a little mythic; when he’s on the course, there’s no other alpha.

Early on, DJ and Kuchar showed their match-play prowess, pouring in long birdie putts on the first and fifth that led to shorter misses from their opponents. It’s the ultimate match-play coup, not just because it wins a hole, but because it reverses momentum and lingers in the mind of the opponent—“Did I miss because he put the pressure on me?” It certainly felt that way. Scott’s miss on the first was rough, and called to mind his career-long struggles with this putter, but Oosthuizen’s miss on the fifth hole after Kuchar buried a bomb (which he followed with a lazy, “I’ll be your huckleberry” grin, and a touch of the hat brim so subtle that it set the crowd into a frenzy) was the kind of putt where you come away certain that Scott would have made it if only Kuch hadn’t buried his own. An intimidation flub, and no doubt about it.

An ugly stretch followed, with pars winning the sixth and seventh to cancel out any advantage, and then, on the eighth, a moment came that changed the match. Johnson, solid and even bordering on dominant to that point, stood over a short putt to tie the hole and pushed it. In a flash, despite having the better of the critical moments and seeming to assert themselves as the aggressors, the lead was down to 1 up. One hole later, Oosthuizen hit the shot of the match on a long approach, leaving Scott with his best birdie chance yet. He straddled the line in his strange pre-shot routine, left the flagstick in and rolled it true. A hole or two earlier, it would have been greeted by relative silence in the wilderness of the late front nine, but they were back on the stadium holes now, and the Heineken-soaked crowd used its chance to roar them to the second nine.

Then they found the heat to test the American mettle, and the Americans responded by falling apart. By the time the merciless surge was over, the Internationals had won five of seven holes to go 3 up with five to play. Then came the squeeze, trading pars on 15, and when Scott’s approach on the 16th caught the slope and rolled alongside the American ball, nothing could save them. Par-par, and they had delivered for Els, posting the precious 5-1 score for the rest of their teammates to see. American carts had raced up in the 16th fairway, but they stayed far away from the celebration, like army tanks that had arrived too late to stop the liberation of an occupied city.

Scott walked at least 20 feet out of his way to catch the departing scorer, just so he could shake his hand, and then he moved graciously through three television interviews before giving generously of his time to the huddle of writers waiting their turn. This will sound trite, but to talk to Scott is to feel validated, to feel that against the odds this person appreciates what you’re saying to him and is taking his time to make sure you’re satisfied with the answer. He’s a gentleman in the classic sense, long after the age of gentlemen—many of them media creations in the first place—came and went.

Life laughs at the word “deserve,” but if anyone deserves these two wins, and deserves to be the elder statesman of an International resurgence, it’s Scott. It appeared for a moment on Friday afternoon that his example would ripple out to the whole team, as the unraveling Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson fell and the International black and gold dominated the scoreboard. But the Americans jolted awake at the final moment, removed the foreign foot from their collective throats with a late defensive action, and restored drama to the Presidents Cup. The king of Australian golf won’t get a simple coronation, but he’ll anchor the Saturday morning lineup as he tries to bring his charges closer to the impossible finish line.