SAN FRANCISCO – Forget fun. Forget chemistry. Forget breezy.
We’re not sure what International captain Greg Norman said to his dozen on the eve of the eighth Presidents Cup, or what he injected in that special beef he had shipped in for the pregame meal, but if the world side has a chance this side of the Tropic of Capricorn it should have been short and sweet – man up.
The axiom goes that the Americans play better at the Presidents Cup than they do at the Ryder Cup in recent years because the odd-year soiree is more slap and tickle than it is slam and tackle.
For the Internationals to have a chance here on the shores of Lake Merced, they had to make hay in the foursome sessions. And for that to happen they had to embrace the pressure that comes when something important is on the line.
For years the U.S. Ryder Cup team couldn’t do it and they struggled. For years the International side has fumbled the foursomes frame and we have a 5-1-1 team afterthought.
“When I look back over the history of the Presidents Cup and where we as a team have got beaten is in the first day, is in the foursomes, or on Saturday morning in the foursomes,” Norman said. “America has been very, very dominating in that department. So when we get behind the 8-ball, it's very hard.”
As a rule, the Internationals dig foursome holes on Thursday and Saturday and spend the rest of the week running up hill. In 1996 the Americans went 4-1 in Thursday foursomes, in 2000 5-0, in 2007 4-0-1 and won all those matches convincingly. By comparison, in 1998 at Royal Melbourne in Australia the Internationals won the Day 1 foursome matches (3-1-1) and their first and only cup.
On Thursday, the Internationals posted three blue-and-gold flags on the board before the final tee time reached the first fairway. By dusk – and thanks in no small part to a pair of misses by Retief Goosen, who failed to concede the putt, and Justin Leonard, who inexplicably failed to hole his 3 footer at the last – the visiting team trailed by a single point, 3 ½ - 2 ½. Goosen later apologized. No word on how Leonard’s mea culpa went over.
The one-point deficit was a victory by any measure for the Internationals.
“That's one of the better starts we've had, believe it or not, for the last three cups or so,” said Els, who teamed with Adam Scott for 2-and-1 victory. “So we are not too despondent about today. The first-day foursomes has always been a bit of an Achilles heel to us.”
Forget scoreboards, the day’s line could be read in each team’s body language. Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, who made road kill of Geoff Ogilvy and Ryo Ishikawa, looked nothing like the unbeatable tandem they were on the course following the round, while Ernie Els, Adam Scott and Ishikawa had the look of men who knew a secret the rest of Harding Park couldn’t fathom.
At worst, Norman’s crew didn’t break any china. At best, they built the frame of a puzzle that has been missing pieces since that twilight showdown in South Africa six years ago.
The theories behind the International’s foursome follies vary.
“America’s top players play (foursomes) every year while this is the only time we do it,” said Robert Allenby, who putted nothing like a man who ranks 189th on Tour in putting average. “You have to find the right combination with golf balls and someone you can gel with.”
And that’s why Norman didn’t build a Hall of Fame resume and an economic empire daydreaming about what could have been. Which brings us back to Harding Park and the matter at hand.
The Presidents Cup may be fun and games compared with the high-psi Ryder Cup, but Norman knew if he was going to inject some life into match play’s little brother his team had to get off the Thursday schneid and that required honesty. You can’t win the Super Bowl in the first quarter but you can sure loose it, and the Internationals have lost plenty of Cups one turn into the proceedings.
It may buck the current trend of getting lost in the process not the result, but Norman had to make this clear – for his team to have a chance they had to perform on Thursday and embrace the pressure.
Had the Shark been clever, he would have pointed across the locker room to honorary assistant U.S. captain diva Michael Jordan. No. 23 wrote record books embracing the pressure of the moment, not hiding from it.
A period into this team bout nothing has been decided, but compared with matches past, the Internationals still have a fighting chance and that’s something. Now, let the fun begin.