JERSEY CITY, N.J. – As Phil Mickelson was busy hammering the latest nail into the International team’s hastily-built coffin, Nick Price stood just off the green with his arms crossed and offered little reaction.
He stared straight ahead, shielded by sunglasses and flanked by his quartet of assistants, before offering three half-hearted claps of acknowledgement. The reluctant applause was directed toward Mickelson, but it may as well have been to the entire American team.
Whatever chance the International squad had to win the 12th edition of the Presidents Cup – or even to make it a competitive affair – flew out the window Friday afternoon during a U.S. rally that turned the fourballs session on its head. What remains is an anticlimactic close to these biennial matches, with the end result hardly in doubt.
And as that realization became more and more apparent, Price could do little more than sift through the rubble for platitudes.
“Tough day for us, again. Another one,” Price said. “I think we saw the strength of the U.S. team come out today, but in all fairness to my guys, I don’t think they played as well as they were capable of. It was just a tough day.”
The scope of the hole Price’s team has dug for itself is rather daunting, and it’s the product of poor play coinciding with an American buzzsaw that seemed fully operational coming down the stretch.
While the home team got out to its traditional lead during the opening foursomes session, the historical record between the two squads in fourballs is much more balanced. This was the session Price’s team used to spark a comeback two years ago in South Korea, and for a while it seemed they might pull off a similar feat while leading three of the five matches for much of the afternoon.
But that advantage turned out to be a mirage, evaporating like the seaside mist over a 90-minute window that transformed the American lead from comfortable to nearly insurmountable.
What was left is the largest advantage ever after two sessions in the 23-year history of this event, and the not-so-farfetched idea that the U.S. could clinch this thing before Sunday.
“It’s obviously not the best of moods going through right now,” said Adam Hadwin, who teamed with Hideki Matsuyama for a draw against Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed that prevented a clean sweep. “It’s obviously going to be a tall task. They are playing well, and they are also some of the best players in the world.”
Price tried to lean on the raw math, noting accurately that two-thirds of the total points are still to be contested. But in need of a rally of historic proportions, it’s difficult to discern where the Internationals go from here.
Consider the facts: their top-ranked player, Matsuyama, basically asked Price to be subbed out for the third session after appearing shaky at best in his first two matches. Their most experienced veteran, Adam Scott, is sitting at 0-2, and the indestructible duo of Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen was, well, destroyed by Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler.
In his third stint as captain, Price was expected to learn from his close call in Korea and the thumping administered by the Americans four years ago at Muirfield Village. Instead, he has appeared flummoxed at every turn while Stricker has displayed a Midas touch from the other side of the table.
Perhaps there was a way for Price to crack the code, to overcome all the advantages the Americans enjoy from depth to camaraderie and home-field advantage. But maybe this was simply a fool’s errand.
“It’s difficult. I don’t know what the recipe is,” Price admitted. “This is my third time around, I’m still trying to figure it out. But we got very close to the right recipe the last time, so hopefully we can remedy that on the weekend.”
Still shy of the halfway point, there’s already plenty of opportunity to second-guess Price’s strategic choices. Rather than save the heavyweight pairing of Grace and Oosthuizen for a match where he could dictate their opponent, Price offered them up in the day’s second match and let Stricker decide their foes. The U.S. skipper met strength with strength, trotting out Fowler and Thomas, who quickly transformed the South African duo’s record together from 5-0 to 5-1.
Any International rally hinged on getting a full point from their most dependable combination, and Thomas described the outcome as earning “more than a point.”
Then there were the equipment issues in the opening foursomes session, where Price explained that two of his four teams unraveled because they struggled to control spin with their teammate’s ball while playing alternate shot amid blustery conditions.
While he’s had months to strategize about variables both small and large, Price said that particular issue never came up during early-week practice sessions in calm winds.
“It went past all of us,” Price said. “So maybe that was an oversight on our behalf.”
Perhaps a point or two could have been salvaged, and Price clung to the notion that the 8-2 deficit was in fact not that far from being a 5-5 split. But optimistic rationalizations only carry so much weight.
The inevitability of this week’s conclusion seemed to hit Price when Mickelson buried that final putt, and whatever hope remains will likely be extinguished in short order.
“These guys are trying their asses off. I’m telling you, they’re trying,” Price said. “But it’s hard when you’re trying so hard and you’re 8-2 down.”