INCHEON, South Korea – However the Presidents Cup arrived at its compelling crossroads, be it fewer points or Phil Mickelson’s pointed comments, it now appears to be worth the price of admission.
The United States may well turn the 11th edition into another boat race on Sunday with 12 singles matches looming, but the foundation for fireworks that Nick Price envisioned when he lobbied for the current format at least delivered a one-point margin of error with the U.S. clinging to a 9 ½ to 8 ½ advantage.
And Mickelson’s ill-advised jab at the Internationals on Friday following a rules infraction that cost he and Zach Johnson a one-hole penalty didn't hirt either. “I feel like we spotted the Internationals’ best team [Jason Day and Adam Scott] two holes and they still couldn't beat us. Just saying,” Mickelson said.
Whatever the tonic, the one-point U.S. lead is the closest these matches have been through three days since the teams finished Saturday knotted at 11 points apiece in 2005; and since those matches, the two sides have split singles play with 30 points each.
“This is what we all came here for, for it to be exciting tomorrow,” said Price, who is taking his second turn as the International captain.
It could have been even closer but for the Internationals' inability to hold a lead in the morning foursome session when Day and Charl Schwartzel blew a 3-up advantage at the turn to lose to Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth on the last hole. Sangmoon Bae and Hideki Matsuyama, likewise, split their match with Bill Haas and Matt Kuchar after leading early.
But the matinee matches largely went to script, with the two sides splitting the session thanks to continued solid play from the South African duo of Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace as well as Bae and Matsuyama.
Bae and Matsuyama combined to post 10 birdies in 13 holes for a 6-and-5 victory over Jimmy Walker and Chris Kirk that included three consecutive birdies for Bae at the turn.
“That was one of the best matches I’ve ever played,” said Bae, who has provided a hometown spark for a gallery that has largely avoided partisanship.
The South Africans, Oosthuizen and Grace, were able to slip past the American power two-ball of J.B. Holmes and Bubba Watson with a chip-in birdie at the 16th hole, becoming the first International team to go 4-0-0.
American captain Jay Haas’ counter came by way of Spieth, who could have beaten the International tandem of Day and Schwartzel single-handedly in the afternoon with eight birdies in 16 holes after combining for just two birdies during Friday’s fourball session when paired with Johnson.
Despite that timely play from all the familiar places and the advantage on the scoreboard, it was the rest of the world that seemed to be in charge after starting the week by dropping four of five foursome matches on Thursday.
“To me, it kind of feels like we're losing just because of what's gone on the last two days,” Zach Johnson said. “But our first day was substantial. That was a big day, a lot of positives.”
Much of that renewed vigor from the International team room could be traced to a format change this year that reduced the total number of points from 34 to 30, a move that Price argued would make the matches more competitive.
But then pinning the Internationals’ inspired play only on new math is a disservice to what has been the side’s most competitive start in a decade.
“I think the points change is huge. But these guys have played phenomenally well,” Price said. “It's both [the players and the new point structure], honestly. I can't actually single out one particular thing.”
While the reasons for the International side’s biennial swoon remain a mystery - from the challenges of getting 12 professionals from seven countries to play under one flag to a general lack of depth - in simplest terms, the rest of the world simply needed to play better.
That was Price’s message to his dozen on Thursday night after the Americans blitzed the home team, 4-1, in the opening session. Since then, the Internationals have outscored the United States, 5 ½ to 7 ½, and turned what has been a formality for more than a decade into an opportunity.
An International victory would be historic. No team that began the singles frame trailing has gone on to win the cup, but for the first time the rest of the world can envision a favorable ending that wouldn’t require either a classic comeback or collapse.
For Price and his dozen, it doesn’t matter whether it’s been Mickelson’s bulletin board miscue or the event’s new math or simply more putts dropping, the result has been a psychological shift that is impossible to ignore.
“We need to win this. This is massive for us. We need this tournament to be competitive and keep the Presidents Cup alive,” Oosthuizen said.
It’s hard to imagine the Presidents Cup is on life support, but Oosthuizen’s point is valid, because for the first time in a long time, neither are the International’s title hopes going into Sunday.