CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It’s difficult to overstate how poorly Thursday went for the International team at the Presidents Cup.
Historically, the Day 1 hole the Rest of the World dug for themselves is akin to a Round 1 knockdown. The Internationals aren’t down for the count, but they are definitely dazed.
It could have been worse. At one point, before any of the five matches had reached the turn on an unseasonably hot day, the U.S. led in all five foursomes matches. Only twice has the American side swept the opening session - in 1994 and 2000 - and the Red, White and Blue went on to win those Presidents Cups by a combined 19 points.
Instead, the 4-1 deficit is a measure of solace for International captain Trevor Immelman. His team is what we thought they were – inexperienced and outgunned.
Immelman marched six rookies out for the game’s most demanding team format before a partisan crowd. He had no other choice. His eight first-timers on the International team are a Presidents Cup record and the combination of a pandemic and an unprecedented challenge to the traditional golf ecosystem left him searching.
Adam Scott, playing his 10th Presidents Cup, and Hideki Matsuyama provided the International team its only real experience and the duo was soundly beaten by Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, 6 and 5, in the day’s opening match.
Tom Kim, a wide-eyed rookie, was supposed to provide an emotional spark but, alongside K.H. Lee, dropped a 2-and-1 decision to Collin Morikawa and Cam Young.
Robbed of the core of their team by LIV Golf’s divisive presence, Immelman sent out what he believed was his best 10 on Day 1 at Quail Hollow Club with a single message – play free. What he got was something well short of that, but there were moments.
Mito Pereira and Taylor Pendrith, in the day’s final group, were a microcosm of everything that is all at once concerning and compelling about the International team.
They were clearly nervous early, playing the first six holes in 4 over par, and were 2 down to Max Homa and Tony Finau before they’d made a birdie. It was a similar freefall all around them as the International team sunk deeper into the abyss. When Pereira hit a poor chip just left of the 12th green, it appeared as if another American flag was headed for the leaderboard. It was mediocre when they needed magic.
This is where Captain Immelman can enjoy of measure of moral victories. Pereira hit his approach shot at the 13th hole to 2 feet for birdie to tie the match and Pendrith charged in a 20-footer at the 16th hole to keep pace with the Americans.
“See what happens when you make some putts,” Immelman beamed as he bounded to the 17th tee.
The easily digestible outcome of match play will bury the nuance of Pereira and Pendrith’s performance, which was sealed by a quick hook into the trees by Pereira at No. 18 and a closing bogey. The Canadian and Chilean were just another piece of a puzzle that unraveled for Immelman on Thursday. But there was much more to the story on Day 1 than a lopsided leaderboard.
“The message has stayed the same. Message is play free. Nobody here expects us to win. We've got to have that belief deep down. Go out there and fight,” Immelman said, before joining his team for a dinner of South American food.
“We're up against maybe the strongest American team ever assembled on paper. We run our system. We get ready and prepare, and we play as hard as we can. Chips will fall where they may.”
The good news for Immelman is the International side has a much better record in the fourballs format, which will be used for Friday’s session. The South African will also likely take a few moments to savor what his team did accomplish on Day 1. Cam Davis, another Presidents Cup rookie, and Si Woo Kim stunned world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns, claiming the last four holes for a 2-up lifeline.
“Just so proud of those guys. Cam has been chomping at the bit for the longest period of time,” Immelman said. “For those guys to fight back. For them to finish strong like that to eke out a point for us really is big psychologically.”
Whether it’s big enough to help the International team recover from Thursday’s overall performance remains to be seen, but Immelman does have hope. The same youthful inexperience that makes much of his team such a liability may end up being the spark they desperately need.