Johnson's hole-out caps strong day for U.S.

Zach Johnson fist-bumps partner Jason Dufner during Day 3 of the 2013 Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village.

Zach Johnson fist-bumps partner Jason Dufner during Day 3 of the 2013 Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village.

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— Beware the sick athlete? You’ve heard the adage, and at the 10th Presidents Cup, had better heed the warning. On Monday night in Georgia, Zach Johnson was so sick with the bug that the possibility of not competing at this week’s biennial event was churning through his brain.

He had to skip his initial flight, opting not to join teammate Matt Kuchar and assistant captain Davis Love III as they departed Sea Island, and by the time he arrived in Ohio on Tuesday, the U.S. squad had already taken its team picture.

That’s OK. In Saturday afternoon’s picture, Johnson was front and center.

He and partner Jason Dufner flipped the opening match of the afternoon foursomes session (the only one to be played to completion), and suddenly, the U.S. has opened up a five-point advantage, 11.5-6.5, as the matches turn to what hopes to be an action-packed finish Sunday.

Having sat out the day’s earlier four-ball session, Johnson and Dufner took a while to get going in foursomes play, and trailed Marc Leishman and Richard Sterne, 2 down, as the match headed to the eighth hole. The Americans, in fact, trailed in all five afternoon foursomes matches at one point – the board was a sea of blue colors – and needed a spark.

Soon, the tandem of Johnson and Dufner would provide it. They went on a torrid run beginning at the par-3 eighth hole, where Dufner channeled his inner Ben Hogan and began hitting iron shots that were reminiscent of the ballstriking clinic he put together on the final day of his PGA Championship triumph at Oak Hill.

“It seemed like Duf was going to hole out three times,” Johnson said. “In about a three- or four-hole stretch, his ballmarks (from his approaches) were in a 3-foot circle next to the hole. I guess if you just keep knocking on that door, maybe one is going to fall.”

The one that finally fell, of course, was the last one of all, and came on a shot struck by Johnson. The U.S. had won five holes in a seven-hole stretch when Johnson drove it into the rough at the par-5 15th hole. Dufner jokingly said he took particular pride in laying the second shot up from the rough to a “perfect number” for Johnson to hit his third in the alternate-shot format, and Johnson promptly holed a “chip wedge” from 115 yards. The ball hit a few inches right of the cup and spun right in. When Sterne was unable to match the magic from a greenside bunker, the U.S. was one point closer to the 17.5 points it needs to capture the cup.

“At one point, maybe the seventh or eighth hole, I looked at the board and it was all blue,” Dufner said. “Being in that lead group, you want to kind of set the tone, and for us to be down a couple holes, and then to come back and actually close the match out before darkness suspended play, I think is pretty key.

“Hopefully it will get some of the guys fired up. It seemed like it turned some of the matches.”

Added Couples, who stayed with that opening match all the way from the eighth hole on, “Honestly, I have not seen golf like that, ever, in alternate-shot. It was incredible golf.”

On Thursday and Friday, each daily session consisted of six matches, and no players had to sit. Saturday featured five four-ball and five foursomes matches – all of which were interrupted by yet more rain at Muirfield Village – and that meant for the first time, captains had to bench players. Couples was buoyed by the fact that three of the players he sat – Johnson and Dufner in the morning, Hunter Mahan in the afternoon – came through with victories in the lone match they played Saturday. (The fourth, rookie Jordan Spieth, lost a 2-up match alongside veteran Steve Stricker.)

“On a team like this,” Couples said, “it’s never any fun to do any of that stuff (have to sit players). . . . In the morning, we played extremely well (winning the four-ball session 4-1), and than Zach and Duf, to flip that match around, (it) seems like it flipped a couple other matches our way.”

The foursomes session will resume Sunday morning at 7:35. The U.S. leads in one (Bill Haas/Steve Stricker, 2 up over Adam Scott/Hideki Matsuyama), trails in two, and is all-square in a fourth.

Twelve singles matches will then follow beginning about 9:10 a.m.

And how is Johnson feeling after being bed-ridden by the bug only days ago? He laughed.

“I just had a massive plate of Mexican (food),” he said without hesitation, “so feeling good right now.”

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