SAN FRANCISCO – Strange game, this match play, which is why it’s only played on the pro level as often as a full lunar eclipse.
Four-ball? Easy enough. Four guys to the tee, four golf balls in the air. But foursomes is a strange, strange cousin, an unrhythmic alternate-shot game sometimes better left behind with 19th-century British gentlemen with scotch-filled flasks and tweed jackets.
And then there are days we warmly welcome it with open arms. Like Saturday morning at the Presidents Cup in the gray, brisk chill of San Francisco, which gave us four hours with more ebbs and flows than a Bay Area tide. Once again, momentum kept us on a swinging pendulum, taunting one team, teasing another.
And by the time lunch was served, before players had to regroup from triumphs and disappointments and return to afternoon four-ball matches, the International team, once poised to pull close to the favored U.S. squad, had to feel as if it had just been run over by a speeding cable car.
Or Tiger Woods.
Both pack equal force.
Woods and Steve Stricker, the Nos. 1 and 3 players in the world, appeared as if they finally were going to tumble, providing one healthy scalp for a team in dire need of securing one in this lopsided competition. Tim Clark and Mike Weir, two little old ants trying to move a proverbial rubber tree plant, had their noses out in front from mid-way through the front nine, and had the Dream Team right where they needed: 2 down with only six holes remaining.
Woods and Stricker battled just to stay in the game. At one juncture, Stricker had to pour in an 8-footer at the par-3 14th just to keep the U.S. from slipping 2 down again.
And then came the stretch run, and Woods, who would tack on a four-ball victory later in the afternoon to run his record with Steve Stricker to 4-0 – absolutely stole the show.
Real shocker there, eh?
In some ways, to be honest, it was. We’re used to seeing such heroics from Woods atop the rolling hills of Augusta, at the seaside scenery of Pebble, and on the hard, fast links at St. Andrews – times when he is a lone wolf. But team play has been his Kryptonite, the one thing that chops him at the knees and makes him just one of the boys. With the exception of a grassy knoll, there is no shortage of reasons and theories on why it happens. Maybe it’s just because he has such a giant target etched into his back. After all, who doesn’t want to be the one holding the slingshot when Goliath crashes hard to the ground?
Saturday morning, Woods simply wouldn’t allow it. At the 11th hour, he hijacked the Internationals’ storybook ending. Weir, who took down Woods in singles in Canada the last time they met, was looking at 5 feet to win the match at 17, with one small caveat: Woods had yet to putt. Gulp. From 23 feet, Woods’ ball bounded along on its Torrey-Pines-like path, nudging its way to the front edge of the cup, then turning and tumbling home. Birdie.
Woods first stuttered his strut toward the hole, as if to will the ball for its last few inches, and then came the fist pump into the air, the teeth, the crowd going bonkers and all the bottled-up emotions bubbling to the surface from a man who simply hates to lose.
Uh-oh. One hole to play, match all square. Weir and Clark looked as if they’d both been caught yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater.
After the unheralded Stricker hit a perfect drive at the par-5 18th, it was a laser-like 3-iron from the golden hands of Woods, a shot shaped with a slight cut from 229 yards and celebrated by its creator like a gladiator holding out his sword. The ball carried the right front bunker and skipped up onto the green, leaving Stricker 9 feet for eagle. When Weir sent his approach shot flailing to the right and Clark sent a chip across the green, it meant Stricker wouldn’t even need to putt.
It also meant that the U.S., which would steal the point, led the match for exactly two holes: Nos. 1 and 18. It was a big reason why the U.S. will take a seemingly commanding 12 1/2 – 9 1/2 lead into Sunday’s singles.
So, did Woods’ late theatrics surprise his partner?
“Never,” Stricker said. “We all know what this guy does. The stage is set and he comes through again today.”
If Saturday morning were a wrestling match, the U.S. would have piled up points for reversals. Five matches, and the U.S. spent most of the day down on the mat. The team trailed during 40 holes, and led for only 23. Yet the U.S. still walked away with a 3.5-1.5 win in the session. Instead of a narrow lead in the matches, it stretched its halftime advantage to 10-7.
So, Tiger, how is it that you happen to come up so big all the time?
“Luck,” he quipped.
Corey Pavin, who will captain Woods in the Ryder Cup next fall, has his own theory on why Woods has been so “normal” in these team gatherings. In the team portions of 11 Ryder and Presidents Cups, Woods required a victory Saturday afternoon to move to a pedestrian .500 record (21-21-2).
“Guys love to play against him, that’s one thing,” Pavin said. “They want to beat him. Nothing against any of the players that he’s played with, but when you put another player with Tiger, you lessen Tiger, because he’s just so great.”
Added Pavin, speaking generally, and not about Steve Stricker, who he thought paired very well with Woods (you can book the two for Wales), “Tiger’s a force. It’s hard. You put two Tigers against anybody, he’ll win. A lot. But you’re putting somebody out there (as his partner) who’s not as good a player as him. Simple as that. I don’t see anybody in the world who would disagree with that. I think you lessen his impact in the team part of the competition.”
If Woods is getting by on luck, then the Internationals bear the other edge of that sword. The whims of match play once again had felled our scrappy little friends from all across the globe, and it wasn’t easy to swallow. Weir left the 18th green with hollow eyes, like a man headed to a tax audit.
It wasn’t the only point heisted by the Americans, as Hunter Mahan-Stewart Cink rallied from 2 down with four to play against Robert Allenby-Vijay Singh to swipe a key halve.
There will be 12 singles points up for grabs Sunday, but if they fall short, the International side again will be left to figure out the mystery of foursomes. Since the International team thrashed the U.S. down under in Australia in 2000 (the International’s lone victory in seven outings), here’s the hard truth on foursomes: 54 matches played, and the U.S. has pocketed 38.5 of the points (a hearty 71 percent) – including one and a half Saturday morning they never should have had.
Maybe International captain Greg Norman should have invested in some tweed jackets – and Saturday, a few scotch flasks wouldn’t have hurt, either.