Close competition adds drama to Presidents Cup

South Africans Ernie Els (right) and Brendon de Jonge paired Thursday and Friday in the 2013 Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village.

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— You want the good news? It’s getting somewhere near halftime at the 10th Presidents Cup here at The Course That Jack Built, and the Washington Generals of this competition are giving the USA Globetrotters a pretty good run. Hey, that in itself is a good thing.

Thus far, the foursomes have been a split, which is a result that puts a smile on the face of International captain Nick Price: One foursomes point is in the books for the Internationals, one for the U.S., and four points remain on the course, with each team leading in two matches.

The most important point of the session could come from the matchup that might have been least heralded: Internationals Angel Cabrera and Marc Leishman lead Brandt Snedeker and Webb Simpson, 1 up, with four holes to play.

“It would be really good momentum for us,” Leishman said, “if we can get it across the line.”

Added International captain Nick Price, “I'm not ruling out the chances that we may get another halve or a full point somewhere. So if we can tie this thing up at the end of tomorrow morning's play, that would be absolutely perfect for us.”

In the past three Presidents Cups – all U.S. blowouts – the U.S. has dominated in the alternate-shot format, holding a gaping 25.5-7.5 advantage. It was enough to lead Price and team leader Ernie Els to hop on a plane north to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to lobby PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to reduce the points available at the Presidents Cup (there are 34, six points more than the Ryder Cup).

At the very least, they were able to flip foursomes from Day 1 to Day 2.

Els stood in the darkness early Thursday evening, basking in his 4-and-3 victory alongside rookie Brendon de Jonge over Bill Haas-Hunter Mahan and giving some thought to a question on points.

“Depends where you are now,” Els said. He smiled. “I guess if you’re behind, you’d need more points to play for.”

But for now, the Internationals are in a pretty comfortable place, close to level against their heavily-favored hosts, trailing only by a point, 4.5-3.5. There are seven rookies on the International side, and a couple – de Jonge and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama – have risen as standout performers. This could get pretty interesting.

Els has been particularly impressed by the play of de Jonge, one of two captain’s selections on the side. The two play vastly different schedules, so when Els was paired alongside de Jonge in the final round at Deutsche Bank last month, it was the first time they’d competed alongside one anotther. Els watched de Jonge shoot 66, and came away from the encounter quietly whispering to Price that he might have found a new Presidents Cup partner in the long-hitting Zimbabwean, whose power fade Els believed would be a good fit for the Jack Nicklaus-designed Muirfield track.

In Thursday's four-balls, de Jonge made eight birdies on his own, but Els struggled on the greens and was little help, missing two short putts that might have made a difference. The pair lost to Steve Stricker and Jordan Spieth, 1 up, and Els departed the grounds for team headquarters in downtown Columbus a frustrated man.

Friday was much different; de Jonge had a partner by his side, and the two put forth a solid ballstriking display, hitting lots of greens and continually giving themselves good looks at birdies.

“I’m so glad for him,” Els said of his rookie partner. “He’s such a champion. We’ve talked about playing practice rounds, we’ve had lunch together . . . it feels like I’ve known him all my life. He’s from Africa, and we speak the same language. He could win some serious golf tournaments if he plays like this.”

Els holed a bunker shot at the par-4 ninth to halve the hole and protect the Internationals’ 3-up cushion. A key sequence then followed on 10, after a 2-hour, 34-minute weather delay. Hunter Mahan rolled in a 35-footer right as play resumed; de Jonge promptly rolled in a 10-foot birdie on top of him.

For his part, de Jonge says he has not allowed himself to feel any added pressure because he is on the team as a captain’s pick. In his mind, he is simply one of 12, and “my point counts the same as everyone else’s.”

The toughest foe of all Friday at Muirfield proved to be Mother Nature, who boasts a pretty stout match-play slate of her own. For the second consecutive day, rains interrupted a single-session day, and play ran into darkness. As a result, four matches will return to the course at 7:30 Saturday morning. Pairings for Saturday's five-match four-ball session will be made at 8 a.m., and a five-match foursomes session follows in the afternoon. Rain is forecast for Sunday; tournament organizers said the captain’s agreement states play can go into Monday if inclement weather intervenes, and the team leading at sunset would be declared the winner.

All are hopeful that this event has a cleaner finish than that.

As for the players, Els and Adam Scott, International team leaders, have done the unselfish thing in taking rookies by their side. By early Saturday morning, if Scott and Matsuyama can close a 4-up lead, the two biggest stars on the International side will have helped secure three of a possible four points. That’s big.

And best of all, they will have helped to keep things close. The longer that happens, the better the prospects for the International side capturing its first Presidents Cup on U.S. soil.

“Hopefully,” Els said, “if tomorrow stays this way on the board (close), the belief in the team will be great.”

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