MELBOURNE, Australia – Tiger Woods looked good as ever playing in the Presidents Cup.
As captain, his American team found itself in foreign territory – trailing for the first time in 14 years.
An inspired International team shook off an opening fourballs loss to Woods and Justin Thomas by getting big shots and key putts from rookies and veterans alike. It won the other four matches Thursday, never trailing in three of them, and wound up with the start it needed in a bid to win for the first time since 1998.
The International won the opening session 4-1, its best start and first time it led after any session since 2005.
“This is the start we needed,” Adam Scott said after he recovered from his own nerves in Australia. “We haven’t seen this for a while. We’ve got to try to keep this lead now as long as possible, and hopefully the week runs out.”
Woods showed off an exquisite short game, building a 2-up lead after two holes with pitch-and-run shots that set up easy birdies. He chipped in for birdie on the par-5 fifth, and closed out the match with an 8-foot birdie on the par-5 15th, his sixth birdie in the 15 holes he and Thomas needed to beat Marc Leishman and Joaquin Niemann.
Asked what worked well in their first time playing together, Thomas replied, “Tiger was working well.”
Little else did for the Americans, but that was more a product of great play by the International team that Ernie Els assembled to try to win the Presidents Cup for the first time since 1998, its only victory.
The International team walked off the course with arms around shoulders, a most happy occasion after having lost seven in a row since the tie in South Africa in 2003.
Even the normally stoic Hideki Matsuyama showed just how much this week means, fist-pumping his way to victory. Matsuyama holed a 25-foot birdie on the 17th for a 1-up lead with C.T. Pan, leading to the final victory of the session over Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson.
“We’ll celebrate this little session victory and then we’ve got a couple more to go,“ Els said.
Next up is foursomes matches, a U.S. strength in the Presidents Cup.
“We have to earn the cup,” Woods said, perhaps a reminder that history only goes so far inside the ropes. “It’s a long week. We’re not out of it yet.”
Woods is the first playing captain since the first Presidents Cup in 1994, and it was his first time playing since 2013. It was his 25th victory in the Presidents Cup, one short of the record held by Phil Mickelson.
He and Thomas never trailed in a match in which no hole was halved until No. 8.
At the bottom end of the draw was more dominance, this time by the International team. Abraham Ancer of Mexico, one of seven rookies on his team, and Louis Oosthuizen opened with five straight birdies and built a 4-up lead through five holes against the American power duo of Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland.
Johnson looked as though he might spark a rally when he smashed driver on 330-yard 11th hole to just inside 4 feet. Johnson missed the eagle putt, though, and Ancer drained a 12-footer birdie putt to halve the hole and stay 3 up. Two holes later, Ancer made another birdie for a 4-up lead, and it was over two holes later.
It was the middle three matches were the International team seized control in the opening session. Adam Hadwin and Sungjae Im won the 16th hole with a par, and Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay didn’t have good birdie looks over the final two holes to lose.
Scott shook off early nerves and poured it on with five birdies, three of them on the back nine as he and Byeong Hun An handled Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau.
The last chance for the Americans to at least get a half-point came in the last match on the course. Reed, who heard his share of needling from the crowd over his rules violation in the sand last week in the Bahamas, made a 12-foot birdie putt to square the match on the 16th, only for Matsuyama to deliver his big putt on the next hole.
Reed’s 30-foot birdie chance on the 18th to halve the match stayed above the hole.
It was only the fourth time the International team has led after the opening session, and it was their largest margin after one day.
“You have to win 15 1/2 points to win the tournament, and we’ve got four,” said Geoff Ogilvy, an assistant captain who has a house at Royal Melbourne. “Still a long way to go from there. It’s going to be pats on the back, this is a good start. But let’s keep going.”
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