JERSEY CITY, N.J. – For Steve Stricker the 12th Presidents Cup is what we thought it was going to be, an embarrassment of riches.
The U.S. starters were always expected to deliver for the home side – Jordan, Patrick, Dustin and Rickie, these are the players who have emerged as the new core for future American teams. But after two days of give and take, it’s been the back half of Stricker’s lineup that has turned this year’s matches into what is shaping up to be another blowout.
In the fourth match of the day, rookies Charley Hoffman and Kevin Chappell – a captain’s pick and the last automatic qualifier, respectively – put the first American flag on the scoreboard when they boat-raced Charl Schwartzel and Anirban Lahiri, 6 and 5.
Both players sat out Thursday’s opening foursomes session and both played like they had something to prove.
“It sucks sitting, there's no question,” Hoffman said. “We are all capable out here but we definitely understood what [Stricker] wanted to do. He has a game plan and he has a mission, and our mission is to win this cup.”
But if the play of Hoffman and Chappell was a pleasant surprise, Justin Thomas’ performance has likely exceeded even his own lofty expectations.
Although most agree Thomas is a rookie in name only, there are always unknowns when country and team become a part of the competitive equation. On Day 1, Thomas – a five-time winner on the PGA Tour this season and the FedExCup champion – admitted to being nervous, but by the time he and partner Rickie Fowler wrapped up their match he’d emerged as the team’s emotional spark.
On the 14th hole, Thomas chipped in from a greenside bunker for birdie to maintain his team’s 2-up lead. Two holes later he rattled a similar shot from a bunker off the flag before closing out the Internationals' best hope of Branden Grace and Louis Ooshtuizen, 3 and 2.
“I'm pumped that we took that team down,” Thomas said of Grace and Oosthuizen, who were undefeated in five team matches dating to the ’15 Presidents Cup. “We took it seriously today like we do every match, but it was a little bit more fun than yesterday's victory.”
And, finally, fellow rookie Kevin Kisner teamed with Phil Mickelson to claw out the day’s final point for Stricker, a flag that just an hour earlier seemed improbable and likely put the finishing touches on an overmatched and seemingly out-of-answers International team.
With the International duo of Jason Day and Marc Leishman, the side’s strongest team on paper, cruising to a 2-up lead through 10 holes, Kisner squared the match with a 30-footer for birdie at the 15th hole and Lefty, a captain’s pick, rolled in a 15-footer for birdie on the final hole to complete a dominant day.
The Internationals failed to a win a full point, the first time that’s happened since 1994, and the United States extended its lead to 8-2 for the largest advantage after two sessions.
To put the U.S. rout in context, the Americans need just 7 ½ points to win the cup with eight points available on Saturday at Liberty National. For the math-challenged, that means the event could be over before Sunday’s singles session.
“I've been on some pretty special teams. This reminds me a lot of the 2008 Ryder Cup team when we finally were able to win at Valhalla,” Stricker said. “A lot of close-knit guys there on that team, but this team is even better than that. They are young, they are explosive, they have a lot of fun with one another.”
As the International stars remained largely irrelevant, the U.S. enjoyed a boost on what is normally moving day at the biennial match. Two years ago in South Korea after tumbling into a similar Day 1 hole, the International side rallied by winning four of the fourball matches.
There was no such rally on Friday.
Even on a day when Spieth and Reed weren’t Spieth and Reed – with the U.S. pair halving their match with Hideki Matsuyama and Adam Hadwin – the American team’s commanding performance had some observers whispering about a potential 10-point rule. Or better yet, International captain Nick Price may want to suggest a revamped selection process that includes the U.S. vs. the Rest of the World and Jupiter, Fla., which is home for a large portion of the American team.
No one in the American team room is willing to get ahead of themselves at this point, but Jim Furyk, the captain of next year’s Ryder Cup squad that will travel to Paris looking to win back-to-back matches for the first time since 1993, would be forgiven if he allowed himself a moment to imagine the possibilities.
Fowler and Thomas have emerged as another pairings pillar alongside Spieth and Reed, filling out half of Furyk’s team lineups for next year, and that scenario doesn’t include the potential Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka showed in their 3-and-2 victory over Adam Scott and Jhonattan Vegas on Day 2.
“This team is a unique team from any in the past in that the talent level is high or higher than we've ever had, and the camaraderie amongst each other on and off the course is a whole different environment; that there's this great support system,” Mickelson said.
Where the U.S. team appears to be forging a foundation for future competitions, Price’s International side continues to be mired in a jigsaw puzzle of divergent personalities and cultures that just doesn’t fit together.
Even on this side of the Hudson River, the ’27 Yankees are considered the greatest team ever assembled. Stricker’s dozen may not live up to that billing just yet, but they are closing in on something truly special.