Internationals Need Alternate Shot Game Plan

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Presidents CupSAN FRANCISCO – Just as Tiger Woods and Y.E. Yang were marking their golf balls on the 12th green a pair of pink-clad protesters ducked under the gallery ropes and began chanting “End the war.” They were a hole short and a day late.

Within 15 minutes the war that was the eighth Presidents Cup was over, at least what remained of a bout that had been put on life support a day earlier by Tiger Woods’ heroics, Steve Stricker’s putter and an International squad that still has not found an answer for its foursome woes.

This Presidents Cup will be best remembered as a step in the right direction for the Internationals, if not an event in need of some competitive cache. And it could have been even better, if not for a world team with a blind spot for alternate-shot golf.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods delievered a final knock-out blow Sunday. (Getty Images)
The United States, now a six-time winner of the game’s odd-year member-member, made their bones in foursome play, taking a 7-4 edge in a format the Internationals have managed to win just five times in 18 sessions.

As assistant U.S. captain Michael Jordan would say, there is a Barcalounger on the International’s heads and it all added up to another 19 ½ to 14 ½ final line.

United States captain Fred Couples said in the Saturday dark that he did not “frontload” his singles lineup, but the way the proceedings unfolded on Sunday one would have thought “Boom Boom” marched out a murderers row lineup to put the Internationals away.

Hunter Mahan, a captain’s pick who sat Saturday afternoon and needed a strong finish, opened an early lead on Camilo Villegas and didn’t let up until play was called on the 17th green, the American a 2-and-1 champion.

It was over by then save only an American lapse in judgment and a spate of conceded 20-footers to Adam Scott and Robert Allenby. Within 30 minutes Stewart Cink (4 and 3 over Adam Scott), Anthony Kim (6 and 4 over Robert Allenby) and Sean O’Hair (6 and 4 over Ernie Els) padded the U.S. lead and pulled the home side to game point.

That the clincher came down to another Woods walkover only seemed apropos.

Yang, the effervescent giant killer, drilled Woods at the PGA Championship and nearly did it again on Saturday at the par-3 ninth hole when the Korean hit his shot from a greenside bunker thin and just missed the world No. 1. Woods, however, returned the favor – clipping the Asian Express of Yang and Ryo Ishikawa in Saturday fourball play and his Korean PGA killjoy in a Sunday rout, 6 and 5.

“He got me once,” said Woods, who posted a perfect card (5-0-0) for the first time in six Presidents Cups. “I hope I can get him a second time.”

In many ways, Woods’ business with Yang was personal because the world No. 1 had already ended the battle, if not the war, 24 hours earlier with one putt and one swing that stung the Internationals and all at once energized and ended this event.

Woods’ 22-footer at the 17th hole in his morning foursome frame against Mike Weir and Tim Clark extended the swing match, and his 3-iron from 223 yards on the next hole proved to be more than the Internationals could bear.

“It was just great golf by Tiger Woods making the putt on 17 turning the whole thing around and he obviously hit a phenomenal shot on 18,” International captain Greg Norman said. “If Tiger doesn't make that putt on 17, and Weir makes the putt, it's all over and we go into (singles) behind one point.”

Instead, the Americans coasted into Day 4 action with a field-goal head start. So many had not come so far to see so little since the halcyon days of Mike Tyson.

The “weed patch” – Harding Park patriarch Sandy Tatum’s endearing epithet for the circular municipal layout – appeared a willing stage, but the Internationals proved unable to solve the foursome riddle, to say nothing of the 500-pound Woods-Stricker gorilla.

With respect to Jim Furyk, the American search for a Woods partner is over, at least until Wisconsin’s favorite son trades golf for deer hunting. America’s one-two punch were pushed past the 16th tee just once, had an answer for every possible International tandem and posted just the third 4-0-0 week for an American team in Presidents Cup history.

“Putting Steve and Tiger together was a cinch,” Couples said. “It was a fun thing for Tiger and Steve to beat up on everybody. For them to win every match we basically shut their team down.”

Mickelson was nearly as prolific with a turnstile of partners. A zombie for too long in these fall showdowns, Mickelson arrived fresh from his Tour Championship victory and jabbed and gabbed three different partners to the finish line.

The man Couples only half-jokingly thought would be the toughest to please at Harding Park made things easy for Kim, O’Hair and Justin Leonard, but mostly for Couples with a 4-0-1 record.

Amy Mickelson, whose absence had been marked by pink ribbons on players’ hats, surprised Phil on Saturday night in his hotel after Day 3. The big left-hander continues to surprise with his late-season play and a resurgent putting stroke presented by Dave Stockton.

“It was so hard to not have her here,” said Mickelson, who clipped Retief Goosen, 2 and 1, for just his second singles ‘W’ in eight matches. “This is such an emotional week, these team events we play, and this is the first time she has not been with me and it was difficult on both of us.”

As for the International side, which dropped to 1-6-1 in the event, there were a few bright spots, including the play of Norman’s “bulldog” Tim Clark (2-2-1) and oft-criticized captain’s pick Ryo Ishikawa, the Japanese phenom who earned three points but couldn’t legally celebrate his play with an adult beverage in the team room.

Some world players have questioned the event’s aversion to venues outside the United States, just two of the eight cups have been played outside North America, but the elephant in the room was a continued aversion to foursome play.

“We have to pretty much go back to the drawing board, because they are a pretty well-oiled team and it’s hard to beat that kind of team with momentum,” said Ernie Els, who went 3-2-0 to share top-point earner honors with Ishikawa.

For Norman, however, it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Widely panned before the first shot had been hit for his picks, his personal life and his poor cell phone skills, the Aussie’s squad stood behind him in the Sunday gloom and another sobering defeat.

In two years the Presidents Cup dips back below the Equator, to Australia and Royal Melbourne, where the Shark is a member. It’s also the site of the International side’s only victory (1998) with a squad that gelled in the team room, if not in foursomes.

“I just wish everyone in the room had the opportunity to experience the camaraderie we have in our room,” Norman said. “Considering we are under nine different flags, we actually act like we are under one flag.”

On Sunday at Harding Park, that flag was white and waved far too early.