MELBOURNE, Australia – Two putts. That’s the difference between having a reason to pay attention for two more days and checking out, again, at the Presidents Cup.
Even those who pine for the first International victory in more than two decades had to appreciate how quickly and decisively this edition went from another blowout to a title bout thanks to two clutch putts, first by Patrick Cantlay and moments later by Justin Thomas.
It’s worth noting that the International team is no worse off than they were 24 hours ago with a 6 ½-to-3 ½ advantage, but things looked much different before Cantlay and Thomas’ heroics.
The leaderboards that dot Royal Melbourne told a different story for much of the afternoon with the International team posting the day’s first victory, a 3-and-2 statement by Louis Oosthuizen and Adam Scott, and leads in each of the final four matches. U.S. playing-captain Tiger Woods has talked about the need to focus on his playing duties while he’s on the course, but it was impossible to ignore the American slide.
“At one point, we were down in four and even in one, and so it looked pretty bleak, but the guys turned it around,” Woods said. “They played phenomenal coming in. It was important for us to end the way we did and it totally changed the last hour.”
The first break came as Cantlay and playing partner Xander Schauffele squared their match against Adam Hadwin and Joaquin Niemann with a birdie at the 14th hole. Cantlay’s walk-off from 14 feet at the final hole sent a roar all the way back to Woods’ group and a much-needed jolt into an event that was veering dangerously close to another blowout.
“I felt like all day out there, it was another beating and we were getting beat up. I looked up on the board and we were down in almost all the matches all day,” Cantlay said. “Being able to flip the whole deal, we're going to go to bed tonight feeling great.”
Less than 30 minutes later, Woods eyed the same green in a heated match against Ben An and Hideki Matsuyama. The captain had squared the match with a 12-footer for birdie at the 13th hole and it appeared the bout was headed for a tie, which would have probably felt like a loss considering Tiger’s status as the U.S. team’s most consistent player this week.
Woods’ 7-iron approach shot bounced hard (as if there are any other kind of bounces at Royal Yellow Brick Road) and rolled out 17 feet past the hole. Thomas eyed the putt and even asked Woods for a read before charging the game-winner into the cup.
“I love me some me!” wailed Thomas in a celebratory ode to a famous Terrell Owens line.
All total it was just 31 feet of putts, but it was so much more than that. The U.S. team’s finish, which also included Gary Woodland and Rickie Fowler’s gutsy tie after trailing by two holes with three to play, turned what was shaping up to be another anticlimactic weekend into something with potential. And after so many blowouts, it’s just what the matches need.
Woods hasn’t pushed all the right buttons, but there has been just enough magic to keep things interesting -- even if there are concerns for captain Tiger if not for player Tiger.
Dustin Johnson, the side’s second-highest ranked player, is winless in two tries. And it’s worth noting that arguably America’s best putter not named Tiger Woods, Kevin Kisner, is watching the event from Georgia. Most concerning, however, is Captain America has become Captain Distraction and it might be time to ask if the price the U.S. team pays for Patrick Reed’s passion is worth the pound of flesh.
Still, Woods’ message to his team Friday will be bathed in optimism thanks to those clutch closing minutes.
“I know one thing, if we don't make those putts, this is a pretty deep deficit,” said Thomas, who will head out Saturday paired with Fowler. “All of us on our team fought really hard to even have a chance on 18 and put ourselves in that position.”
Cantlay went so far as to claim the competitive high ground. “Making those putts on 18 were so big for the momentum shift,” he said.
Although America’s closing dramatics certainly salvaged the event from the competitive abyss, it remains to be seen if the “momentum” indeed shifted to the visiting team. From the International perspective it’s easier to focus on what they’ve accomplished, not what could have been.
“Look at the record we've had in the foursomes the last 25 years; for us to come out 2 ½ [to] 2 ½ in the session is like a win for us. We would have taken that at the start of the day,” International captain Ernie Els figured.
To Els’ point, his side hasn’t won a foursomes session since 2005 and dominated Thursday’s fourball frame, which should give the young team confidence heading into Saturday’s best-ball start.
However the sides want to slice it, Friday’s finish did assure some much-needed weekend drama, which is a massive upgrade over the ’17 matches, which were nearly won by the U.S. ... on Saturday.
Contrary to common complaints, the International team doesn’t have to win to maintain the event’s relevance, but it does have to be close because the only thing worse than another International loss is competitive indifference.