INCHEON, South Korea – It wasn’t Concessiongate, but given the status of a biennial event that has largely lacked any measure of buzz for some time, the rules minutiae that likely cost Phil Mickelson and Zach Johnson a half point Friday was a reason to sit up and take notice.
While Lefty’s gaffe lacked the antagonistic subtext that made last month’s Solheim Cup so compelling, it was a breath of fresh air straight off the East China Sea for an event sorely in need of excitement.
When the dust finally settled at the Presidents Cup, the rules snafu led to Mickelson and Johnson losing two holes in the span of a single frame (No. 7), and International captain Nick Price’s suddenly energized team took care of the rest.
After earning the lone International point on Thursday, Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace made an early statement Friday, stunning the American duo of Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, 4 and 3, to start a rally that would have the Internationals trailing by just a point, 5 ½ to 4 ½, at day's end.
The highlight for captain Nick Price, however, was Sangmoon Bae’s 11-foot birdie make on the 18th hole to edge Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker, 1up. At no point during that match did Bae and his partner Danny Lee lead the Americans - until, of course, it was over.
“I must admit, that putt that Sangmoon made on No. 18 today, was probably the highlight of the last two days for us,” said Price, whose team won their first session since 2011. “They struggled a little bit today, and Danny obviously has been trying so hard. I think he's strung out. But it's a good day for us.”
It was the collective play of the International team, which won three and a half of the five points avaiable on Day 2, that infused a measure of competitiveness into these matches, but it was the bizarre moments that Mickelson spent on the seventh hole that made the event compelling.
With his fourballs match against Jason Day and Adam Scott all square on the seventh tee, Mickelson switched to a “firmer [golf] ball” for his tee shot only to discover he had violated the one-ball rule, which resulted in what officials called an “adjustment to the state of the match.”
The adjustment, essentially a one-hole penalty, was compounded when rules officials told Mickelson he was disqualified from the hole. Zach Johnson, who was playing the International tandem a man down, made par to the Internationals' birdie.
From all square to 2 down in one hole, it was, indeed, a profound adjustment to the state of the matches as a whole, transforming them from foregone conclusion to compelling competition.
While Mickelson took full responsibility for his mistake, he did seem to cast a strange stone afterward with a comment that is sure to become bulletin board fodder for a suddenly inspired International team.
“I feel like we spotted the Internationals’ best team two holes and they still couldn't beat us. Just saying,” Mickelson said.
Although Alison Lee’s mistake, combined with what appeared to be European gamesmanship, actually inspired the American Solheim Cup team to victory last month, Mickelson’s mistake appeared to give the Internationals new life heading into Saturday’s double session.
After both its captain and players started the week with weak efforts, the International team rallied on Friday thanks, at least in part, to a pep talk by Price after Thursday’s meltdown.
“Price had a good involvement with the team last night, getting the pairings spot-on, and I think that was really important for today,” said Grace, who along with Oosthuizen is 2-0 this week.
Price – who surprised some even inside his own team room with a few of his pairings on Thursday, most notably his decision to sit Sangmoon Bae for the opening foursome match – said his biggest concern was how nervous his team, particularly the rookies, appeared in the opening session.
“I know I keep repeating myself, but there's not much more that you can say to those guys to instill confidence in them,” Price said. “You know, I don't criticize them. I didn't say anything. It was just an observation yesterday. They just responded so well today.”
U.S. captain Jay Haas likely stated a similar case to his team after dropping three of Friday’s five fourball matches, but then the American front man has history on his side.
The U.S. team held a similar one-point advantage after two days in 2013 at Muirfield Village before nearly sweeping the morning fourball session on Saturday. It began Sunday with a six-point advantage.
“Obviously we're not as pleased with our day today as we were yesterday,” Haas said. “I don't think the guys are discouraged. It's a putt here, a putt there. Things could have ended differently. It's obviously a very important day tomorrow. I think the guys realize that and they will come out ready to go.”
While Saturday will prove pivotal for this year's matches, Friday was likely the most crucial day for the overall health of the Presidents Cup.
As Price has preached all week, these matches, perhaps more so than any of the previous 10, need to be competitive and compelling. That the event became slightly more contentious on Friday was only a bonus.