JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Officials rerouted Liberty National for this week’s Presidents Cup, moving the picturesque closing hole up in the lineup to No. 14 in order to assure matches reached the signature par 4.
At the rate things are going for the International team, just making it to the re-designated 14th will be a challenge. The day’s opening foursomes match ended on No. 14, a 6-and-4 rout for the American tandem of Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas over Hideki Matsuyama and Charl Schwartzel.
Moments later, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed finished off the wildly over matched pair of Si Woo Kim and Emiliano Grillo, 5 and 4, at the 14th hole.
It wasn’t the start International captain Nick Price envisioned, but it’s not as though he hasn’t been here before.
The U.S. has now won its 27th consecutive session, a streak that stretches back to Day 3 of the 2005 matches, and will take a 3 ½-to-1 ½-point lead into Friday’s fourball matches.
After those two early blowouts, things got better for Price’s crew, but only slightly.
Adam Scott and Jhonattan Vegas at least pushed the U.S. duo of Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar to the 18th hole only to drop a 1-up decision.
It’s as regular as the Staten Island ferry at the PGA Tour’s biennial member-member; captains and competitors talk of how evenly matched the two teams are and yet as soon as meaningful shots start to fly it’s largely only American flags that find their way to the leaderboard.
Foursomes isn’t the International team’s forte, observers note. The format, which features 30 available points, doesn’t favor the Rest of the World’s top-heavy lineup, the reasoning goes.
Valid concerns, to be sure, but it ignores the central elephant in the International team room.
For the last decade the Rest of the World’s best and brightest have largely been a bust at the biennial event.
On Thursday at blustery Liberty National, the International side needed better from their big guns. All told, Matsuyama, Jason Day and Marc Leishman – the team’s top three ranked players – went winless on Day 1, with the two Australians halving a sloppy duel with Phil Mickelson and Kevin Kisner.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this - the International team, which is mired in a 1-9-1 slump, struggles from the top down – with the notable exception of Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace, who are 5-0-0 in the last two Presidents Cup as partners.
Matsuyama, the side’s top-ranked player, is now 3-5-2 in the matches and managed to make just two birdies on Day 1 on his way to the session’s most lopsided loss.
“I think he still may be reeling a little bit from the PGA [where Matsuyama tied for fifth place] and that. And also he's had such a huge year,” Price said of his Japanese star. “I think he's probably a little tired but he played so well in the practice rounds.”
To be fair, Thomas and Fowler were a combined 4 under par through 14 holes against Matsuyama and Schwartzel, which was the alternate-shot equivalent of a format haymaker; but tired or not it just wasn’t enough for a team that has proven incapable of coming from behind.
Scott wasn’t any better.
The Australian has seven cups etched into his bag this week, one for each match he’s played and the most of any active player, and they are all half empty and hopelessly beyond the benefit of perspective.
Scott, who endured perhaps his most inconsistent season on Tour in 2017 and has a 13-18-5 record in the matches, has lost with Stuart Appleby as a partner, Retief Goosen, K.J. Choi, Geoff Ogilvy and Ernie Els. On Thursday, it was Vegas, a Presidents Cup rookie, along for the walk; but it was Scott who looked like the first-year player with shots like the one he hit on No. 10, a chippie 7-iron that sailed long and into a hazard that led to the U.S. team tying the match.
Although Day and Leishman, ranked seventh and 16th in the world, respectively, appeared to be Price’s strongest duo, they failed to play like it down the stretch.
Day found the water with his tee shot at the 12th hole, missed an 8-footer for par at the 17th hole that would have won the match, mis-hit his tee shot short of the 18th green and didn’t touch the hole with his 18-footer for par at the last for the halve.
Some might say the Australians ran into the better team, but that ignores the fact that Kisner and Mickelson failed to make a birdie on the closing nine. Some might say the International core simply got beat by better play, but that ignores years of history.
Earlier this week Ernie Els, one of Price’s four assistants, was asked what it would take for the International team to do what they haven’t done since Bill Clinton occupied the White House – win.
“There’s always a core of guys that have to play well, there’s always quality guys on the team, I would say five guys and we need points from those guys and they are going to have the toughest matches,” Els said. “We need points from our star players.”
Els, a lock to captain his own International team someday, wasn’t calling anyone out, but we all know who those stars are and they know what they must do on Friday to keep this from being another blowout.