MELBOURNE — The playing captain's objectives were simple: set the tone and make sure the first point of the Presidents Cup went red, white and blue.
Tiger Woods birdied his first two holes of the day. Tone, set. He birdied his last two holes of the day. Point, secured.
Woods made six birdies overall in a masterful performance on Thursday at Royal Melbourne to carry him and Justin Thomas to a 4-and-3 victory over the Internationals' Marc Leishman and Joaquin Niemann.
"It was important for us," Woods said. "JT and I went out there and partnered up well. Got off to a quick start and got up on them early, and kind of held on from there."
Thomas, asked what was working so well between he and Mr. Woods, put it succinctly: "Tiger was working well between the two of us."
It started on the first hole, Woods and Thomas playing in the leadoff match. Woods hit his trusty cut off the tee, then nipped a pitch off a tight lie that landed, checked, then rolled out to gimme range. One up to the Americans. On the second, a dogleg-right par 5, Woods sliced a fairway wood from the right rough to just in front of the green. His pitch finished above the hole—a big no-no at this vaunted Alister MacKenzie gem where the greens are running somewhere around 14 on the Stimpmeter—but walked in the delicate birdie effort to push the lead to 2 up.
The Americans led the rest of the way, though the International duo did their best to make things interesting. Leishman, a local favorite, given his Aussie roots, birdied the third hole to cut the deficit to 1 down, but the Yanks would go on to win the next two. Thomas expertly navigated the contoured fourth green with his approach, landing it some 30 feet left of the flag before it trickled to 10 feet below the hole. The putt was dead center. Back to 2 up.
The highlight of the day came at the fifth hole, a 148-yard par 3 with a cavernous bunker in front of the green. Woods' tee shot landed on the putting surface but trickled down to the rough between two bunkers. He played a bump-and-run that never looked destined for anywhere but the bottom of the cup.
After it did indeed fall, Woods pointed to Thomas, then pointed to the hole. His message was clear, and reminiscent of Jordan Spieth's famous instructions to caddie Michael Greller at the 2017 Open Championship at Birkdale: Go get that. When the captain tells you to do something, you do it. Thomas happily fetched the Bridgestone out of the cup and tossed it to his buddy "T Dub."
After struggling quite a bit on the early holes of his first-ever team match, Niemann, 21, made a three-perfect-shots birdie at the sixth hole, then Leishman made a winning par at 7 to cut the lead again to 1 up.
That was the last hole the Internationals won. Woods won the drivable par-4 11th with a delightful 30-yard bunker shot that led to a conceded birdie. His fifth birdie of the day came via a high cut to eight feet at the par-3 14th, then he struct the decisive blow with a four-footer for birdie at the par-5 15th.
The victory was Woods' 24th in the Presidents Cup, bringing him one behind Phil Mickelson for the all-time record in this competition.
When this event started, few expected Woods to play all five sessions, given his captain's duties and a body that turns 44 later this month. But Woods didn't just look like the player who won the Zozo Championship and contended at the Hero World Challenge. He looked like the best player at Royal Melbourne, and general team strategy dictates playing your best player whenever possible. Captain Woods has some tough lineup choices ahead, but Player Woods did his best to make at least one aspect of those choices rather simple.
Another tricky thing about being a captain—even a playing captain—is you can only control what you can control. Once you set the lineup, it's up to the players to carry their weight. That didn't happen on Thursday, as Woods and Thomas' point was the only one the Americans won. The Internationals will take a 4-1 lead into the foursomes session on Friday.
"We have to go out and earn the Cup," Woods said. "We're not done. We're not out of it yet. It's a long week."