MELBOURNE, Australia – It’s called an Aussie “hook turn,” a white-knuckle, precarious kind of thing that somehow produces order from anarchy.
That’s what International captain Greg Norman had in mind when he front-loaded his Sunday card – dart into traffic from the far lane against a red light and beat the odds. Beat history.
He needed points, fast, and more than a little help from the American side of the Presidents Cup draw.
Early on a windswept Sunday the International ride remained unscathed. By the time the trailing matches reached the turn Norman’s grand plan was staying to script. The home side was up big in the first four matches and leading or all square in four of the next eight.
The problem with the “hook turn,” however, is the law of diminishing returns. Despite the Internationals' hot start, despite closing the gap to 14-16, the oncoming American traffic proved too much for Norman & Co.
For the second consecutive Presidents Cup, Tiger Woods secured the winning point for the United States, dismantling Aaron Baddeley, 4 and 3, in his most commanding performance of the week, and becoming the first captain’s pick to clinch.
“A lot of people have asked why I picked him and how he was going to play,” U.S. captain Fred Couples said. “I think he showed himself that his swing is back and he’s healthy, and that’s more important to me.”
Couples answered Norman’s quick-start strategy with a more balanced lineup weighted with veterans late in his card in hopes of undercutting any potential International rally. In order American staples Jim Furyk, David Toms, Woods and Steve Stricker closed out the ninth Presidents Cup, a week that began, fittingly enough, with an unlikely pair of American rookies leading the way.
For the week he was 2-3-0, matching his worst Presidents Cup record since his rookie start in 1998, and opened with the most lopsided loss in match history, a 7-and-6 hammering by Adam Scott and K.J. Choi.
In between he scratched out his lone team win, a 1-up decision in Saturday’s morning foursome session, and left little doubt in his singles match, making five birdies in 11 holes and closing out the Aussie rookie, 4 and 3.
Through three 'seasons' and as many different winds, Woods navigated the classic layout with near-flawless ball-striking and a faulty grasp of the pitched putting surfaces. On Sunday, following a putting tip from Stricker before his round, he added the missing element.
Woods rolled in birdie putts of 4, 17, 21, 17, 4 and 2 feet on Nos. 2, 5, 6, 10, 11 and 15, respectively – nearly matching his birdie total (eight) for the week. The man who played 16 holes without a lead, or a birdie, never trailed on Sunday and halted what would have been the first Sunday comeback in Presidents Cup history.
“I'm very pleased with the progress I've made with Sean (Foley) and it's finally paying off under pressure. It held up nicely last week at the (Australian) Open and it held up nicely this week,” Woods said.
That the Americans entered Sunday’s final frame with a 13-9 lead largely without the services of Woods is only the tip of one of the most curious Cups.
Simpson and Watson played the perfect leadoff men, blanking the Internationals in three consecutive sessions, while Furyk and Phil Mickelson, who had assumed the role of mentor in recent Cups, also opened with a 3-0 week.
“I have a feeling (Mickelson) probably asked to play with me because I felt like he could get a lot out of me,” said Furyk, the only player to post a 5-0 record at Royal Melbourne. “He’s got a great leadership quality in these events. I struggled this year and he kind of took me under his wing and kind of boosted my confidence.”
In Sunday singles Lefty played like he needed a partner, conceding his first three holes to Adam Scott and three-putting from 5 ½ feet to go 4 down. By the time the Australian finally closed Mickelson out, 2 and 1, the Cup was virtually decided.
If Norman’s Sunday plan fell short, Couples’ collection of victories large and small seemed more of the happenstance variety. On Tuesday night Mickelson and Furyk surprised the captain with their request to play together, and sending a pair of rookies out in the first foursome match – as Watson and Simpson requested – blatantly violates every captain’s conventional wisdom.
If Paul Azinger’s victory at the 2008 Ryder Cup was calculating, Couples’ second consecutive Presidents Cup triumph was, by every measure, by committee.
The “players’ captain” was more interested in going with the flow than finding the perfect formula. Note to future captains – this is not brain surgery.
“One thing we have done in the last four years is, you know, I have Tiger and Phil and Stricker and Jimmy, in the team room making every decision,” Couples said. “We're a team. I'm the captain but we are a team all day long all week long. I'm not telling Jim Furyk when to play and what slot to be in. And then they give me all the information on the younger players, too. So it worked out really well in San Francisco, and it worked out well here.”
For the week Couples defied conventional wisdom and the Americans defied the odds on a layout that was billed as a friendly-confines advantage for the Internationals. To play Royal Melbourne, the pundits figured, you needed experience, the one thing the Americans had no way of gaining.
It’s why Norman burned one of his captain’s picks on Robert Allenby, languishing at 69th in the World Golf Ranking and a decade removed from his last Tour title, but the Australian had history at Royal Melbourne.
For the week Allenby didn’t earn a point while the Americans plowed through even more articles of faith.
“I’ve been so impressed with the way the Americans have adapted to the conditions,” assistant International captain Frank Nobilo said. “You wouldn’t think that. This is supposed to be our home course, but they’ve adapted very well.”
It was in Sunday’s second-to-last group where Couples plowed through the ultimate Cup dogma.
With the U.S. just five points shy of victory, some viewed Woods’ penultimate spot on the Sunday card as an attempt to “hide” a player who had struggled mightily on Royal Melbourne’s greens and posted a 1-3-0 record in team play. To Couples he was an insurance policy.
Where the world saw a liability still rediscovering a putting touch that’s been MIA for two calendars, Couples saw a backstop that would stem the tide if need be, regardless of form or recent history.
In Melbourne’s maze of congested streets the “hook turn” works, against all odds and any reasonable regard for personal safety. At Royal Melbourne it was a maneuver of a different type that extended the Americans' hold on the Presidents Cup to seven matches – the U-turn.