JERSEY CITY, N.J. – In the days leading up to the start of the Presidents Cup, both teams spent ample time clinging to every possibility that this one might be different.
That after two decades of dominance, this might be the one where the Americans finally falter. That this could be the time that the Internationals turn a moral victory into, you know, an actual victory. That any minor slip, one underestimated matchup, might be enough to turn the tide of the entire event in favor of the upstart visitors.
The buildup featured two squads explaining to anyone who would listen that the playing field at Liberty National Golf Club was decidedly more even than any of the prior results would indicate.
Then an actual competitive golf shot was struck, and we all realized it was business as usual.
Just as the sun rose in the east, the Americans are out to an early lead at the Presidents Cup, this time by a 3 ½ to 1 ½ margin. The last time the U.S. faced a deficit after any session was 2005, back when their opponents were relying on guys like Michael Campbell, Mark Hensby and Peter Lonard.
“We’ve been off to poor starts for a while on Thursdays,” admitted International captain Nick Price.
It’s only Day 1. But if history is any indication, their pole position might not be any more threatened than it currently is.
“I think a couple of the guys talked about it last night, Jordan (Spieth) mentioned that this first session is pretty critical, and we need to go out there and take care of business,” said Rickie Fowler, who won his opener alongside Justin Thomas. “I feel like as a team, we really did a good job of that.”
The Americans tried to downplay their advantage early in the week, insisting that the slightest bobble could hand the momentum to Price’s squad. In reality, though, what the Internationals needed to remain competitive was for their absolute best efforts to coincide with some uncharacteristic clunkers from the top Americans.
Neither occurred in the opening session, and there’s little reason to expect the circumstances to turn on a dime overnight.
“There’s still a long, long ways to go,” said U.S. skipper Steve Stricker. “But we very much liked the day and the way it started.”
Stricker led with strength in the opening match, pitting the familiar yet formidable duo of Fowler and Thomas against Hideki Matsuyama and Charl Schwartzel. Thomas barely broke a sweat in his first Presidents Cup match, one in which the Americans at times appeared more laid back than a typical Tuesday money game.
“We just really stayed in our game plan,” Thomas said. “I think that’s what we did such a great job of, is we never altered it depending on what they were doing. We played some great golf out there, we really did.”
After digging an early hole for the sixth straight edition of this event, the International contingent did everything they could to view the proceedings through rose-colored glasses. Price offered assurances that his team still felt competitive, describing the two-point deficit as the product of “one of our strongest starts in foursomes.”
Jason Day offered up a kernel of optimism despite a pair of closing bogeys that turned a momentum-shifting win for him and Marc Leishman into a bittersweet draw in the day’s final match.
“Any point is like moving forward,” Day said. “Even if it’s half a point.”
There are still 25 more points up for grabs, and the historical records in fourball play are much more balanced than those in the foursomes format, which heavily favored the Americans. But the climb was already arduous enough for the visitors, and they did themselves no favors on a day where blustery winds – and the watchful eyes of three presidents – made for a nerve-wracking session from the very first shot.
Staked to an early advantage like so many of his predecessors, Stricker led Friday’s session with more strength, opening with the Spieth-Reed and Fowler-Thomas pairings that combined for two points without ever reaching the 15th hole.
It’s a signal that the U.S. is not content to simply protect their lead; they are intent on growing it. And after a relatively stress-free opener, there’s every reason to believe they’ll be able to do just that.
In the process, they could very well unravel a week’s worth of parity-seeking storylines and put another Presidents Cup on ice before the weekend city crowds even have a chance to hop the ferry south past Lady Liberty.
“I would consider it to be like going into Sunday of a tournament, if you have a four- or five-shot lead. It affords you to be able to make some mistakes,” Fowler said. “If you’re playing from four or five shots behind, you can’t really make a mistake. You have to try and catch those guys. So we’re off to a good start, but there’s a lot of golf to be played.”