Internationals still can't figure out Prez Cup

Ernie Els waits on the 15th hole during the singles matches of the 2011 Presidents Cup.

Ernie Els waits on the 15th hole during the singles matches of the 2011 Presidents Cup.

MELBOURNE, Australia - Ernie Els, his long week done, stood 150 yards from the green in the middle of the 17th fairway at Royal Melbourne late Sunday afternoon, viewing a scene he’s witnessed far, far too many times: Another vibrant American celebration at the Presidents Cup.

Els has played on seven International teams, and he’s tasted victory only one time. That was here at world-class Royal Melbourne 13 years ago, in 1998. Tiger Woods was a third-year pro and the Internationals trounced a U.S. squad that simply wasn’t ready for the task. The celebration was so good that night that Els said he went straight from the hotel casino to his plane the next morning. Little did he know there would not be another.

This time around in the Land of Oz, the mood – and the result – was far different. Needing a “miracle” the likes of the one the U.S. found in the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, the Internationals threw an early scare into the U.S. in Sunday singles. But in the end, a four-point deficit and a U.S. lineup back-loaded with experience simply was too much for the home club to overcome.

More champagne for the red, white and blue.

“Some things have got to change,” Els said. “They’re a great team, and they play as a team. We basically have from Monday to Wednesday to put a team together and function as a team.”

The International side boasted five Australians, three South Africans, three Koreans and Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa. The players compete on different tours around the world and have language barriers in the team room and on the golf course. In the end, despite this being captain Greg Norman’s grand show at home in Australia, the U.S. proved too powerful, winning 19-15, for a fourth consecutive victory.

The U.S. side won the cup this time with its depth. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson would finish a combined 6-7-1, but it really didn’t matter. Jim Furyk, who endured a dismal, winless PGA Tour season, finished a perfect 5-0, only the fourth player in the history of the matches to do so. Hunter Mahan, who lost the decisive point at the Ryder Cup in Wales last autumn, was a standout, going 4-1. David Toms played on his first national team since 2007 and went 3-1. Rookies Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson went 3-1 in partner play. Rookie Nick Watney rallied for a key singles victory. Every player on the team would find a way to contribute as the U.S. won for the seventh time in nine matches (in 2003 in South Africa, the teams played to a 17-17 draw).

The final cushion will appear one-sided in the record books, but U.S. captain Fred Couples had some anxious moments early on Sunday, when 12 singles matches took to the golf course. The Internationals went on top in each of the day’s first four matches, and Mickelson, facing Adam Scott, went 3 down through three holes before he even stroked his first putt of the day. (Mickelson would fight back from a 4-down deficit but eventually lose, 2 and 1.) The U.S. captain watched Watson go from a birdie chance to double bogey when he rolled a putt off the treacherous third green. The wind was blowing, Royal Melbourne was bearing her teeth, and it wasn’t the best of starts for Team USA.

“After two hours, I had to get a sandwich in my stomach,” said Couples, who will step aside after captaining the U.S. to back-to-back Presidents Cup triumphs. “I really didn’t think Royal Melbourne was treating us very good today.”

But the U.S. would rally to a 6-6 result in the singles, and lost only one of five sessions over four days. Tiger Woods, whom Couples tabbed as a captain’s pick, would collect the winning point, closing out Aussie Aaron Baddeley with a brilliant bunker shot and birdie at the 15th hole.

Woods finished 2-3 over four days, but drove the ball well and played solidly from tee to green. On Sunday, buoyed by a putting tip he received on the practice green from teammate Steve Stricker, Woods got the putter rolling, and Baddeley had no chance.

Couples never had doubts about Woods.

“When a guy looks at you and says, ‘Don’t worry about me,’ you’re going to smile,” Couples said. “I felt like I was picking the greatest player I’d ever seen play.… Today, I heard he played like the Tiger of old.”

He did. The Internationals won the fourball sessions (6-5) and halved the singles. Once again, foursomes (alternate-shot) play proved quite pivotal in the matches, with the U.S. finishing 8-3 over two sessions.

For the five homegrown Aussies and their captain, it was a bittersweet homecoming. Only Geoff Ogilvy (3-1-1), who used to skip school to sneak onto Royal Melbourne as a teen, would finish with a winning record.

“We had a great team, and there’s no reason why we should be losing all the time, “ said Aussie Robert Allenby, a captain’s pick who finished 0-4. “For some reason, we just don’t jell in the foursomes. The fourball, we do well, but in foursomes, we just don’t connect. I don’t know what it is. We’ve been trying to come up with the answers for that, but we just haven’t come up with any.”

The Internationals never led in the matches, which also meant its 13th man, a partisan home crowd in Australia, never got very involved.

“We never gave them anything to cheer about,” Els said.

Els, Allenby and their International teammates have two years to figure it out before the 2013 matches visit Muirfield Village in Ohio. And if they don’t, they’re likely going to be watching yet one more U.S. celebration – one they’ve already had to stand by and view way too often.

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