DUBLIN, Ohio – As moral victories go, this one carries some street cred.
Before Mother Nature intervened and dumped nearly an inch of rain on muddy Muirfield Village, the Internationals were dug into a hole that threatened to make the next three days of the Presidents Cup as enticing as an intrasquad soccer match.
Down in all six matches shortly before the weather-warning horn sent players and patrons scrambling for cover, Nick Price’s crew clawed its way back into relevancy and escaped what was shaping up to be another black Thursday.
With apologies to the International faithful, we don’t play for participation ribbons and it’s best to leave the moral victories to high school football teams and debate teams.
The Internationals need more than a good showing if they are going to end two decades of hopelessness, and Thursday’s opening fourball session needed to be better than 3 ½ to 2 ½.
The U.S. hadn’t won a fourball session at the biennial match since 2003. It’s why Price – along with Greg Norman and Ernie Els – pleaded with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to change the opening-day format to best ball instead of alternate shot.
It could have been worse, but it needed to be better.
“Nick just told us to stay patient,” said Graham DeLaet, who along with Jason Day rallied from a three-hole deficit through six holes to stun Hunter Mahan and Brandt Snedeker, 1 up. “We were playing well, they were playing really well, but we knew we just needed to play our game.”
Unfortunately for DeLaet, the Internationals’ “game” hasn’t been up to the task in this bout.
While Price’s seven rookies bask in the glow of their Thursday fortunes, the captain and his veterans know what awaits in Friday’s six foursome matches.
The name may change, but not the competitive essentials.
To explain the International team’s struggles at the Presidents Cup, look no further than the American side’s struggles in the Ryder Cup.
The U.S holds a commanding 7-1-1 lead in the Presidents Cup. Over roughly that same period of time, with roughly the same team, America is 2-7-0 in the Ryder Cup, and for roughly the same reasons. Foursomes play and poor putting are the primary Achilles’ heels for both perennial punching bags.
The Internationals have not won a foursomes session since Day 1 in 2003, and last time around at Royal Melbourne in 2011, the U.S. won by four points and outplayed the home team 8-3 in foursomes play.
Similarly, just once in the last five matches (2012) has the U.S. team won the foursome portion of the competition at the Ryder Cup and is 1-4 in that span.
The week’s red, white and blue squad also enjoys the game’s most red-hot putters at the moment, the other side of the team competition coin.
America’s top six putters according to the Tour’s strokes gained-putting statistic are better than the International side’s best, Day who ranks 29th and trails Steve Stricker (second), Brandt Snedeker (fourth), Phil Mickelson (sixth), Tiger Woods (22nd), Matt Kuchar (25th) and Hunter Mahan (27th).
Whether it is the Americans in even-numbered years, or the Internationals in odd years, neither the reason nor the outcome is a mystery. And it may be too much to expect a Rest of the World brainstorming session late Thursday to reach an epiphany. The answer to the International woes can be found in the clichéd Tour fallback position – play, and putt, better.
“It’s no secret, is there? It's just about playing some good golf,” said Adam Scott, who halved his match against Bill Haas and Webb Simpson playing with Hideki Matsuyama. “I think everyone's feeling pretty confident after this afternoon the way they played the last 10, 12 holes, whatever we had left out there. Take some of that confidence into tomorrow.”
Thursday’s comeback was nice, but it wasn’t the cure. Price & Co. are still running uphill and when the captains named virtually the same teams for Friday’s foursome play – U.S. captain Fred Couples switched two of his teams while Price went with the status quo – the subtext was clear.
Couples may play the role of disengaged leader, but his motives were transparent – if the Internationals are going to end the U.S. reign they will have to do so only by cutting into the core of America’s dominance and win a foursome session.
Momentum can be a powerful platform particularly in these team gatherings (see Ryder Cup, 2012), but the anxiety was clear in Price’s voice when asked how he intended to break the U.S. stranglehold in the foursome frame.
“It has been very hard for us in foursomes, it’s the hardest format,” the captain said. “But individuals have got to get together and spur each other on. You can only do so much. I am not going to lose faith in those teams.”
The Internationals positioned Day 1’s rally as a moral victory, but if they are going to score their first proper triumph since 1998 they will need more than that.