JERSEY CITY, N.J. – The way the American team of Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger played early opening day of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National on Thursday, you might have thought they were steely veterans at this business, not neophytes.
After Koepka’s opening drive re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and landed 365 yards down the fairway, Berger made a 40-yard wedge nestle to a stop 2 feet of the cup. It was a kick-in birdie and gave the youngsters a 1-up lead over Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen.
Too bad for the Americans the match had another 17 holes to go because, time after time, the duo in the blue-and-white striped shirts failed to take advantage of opportunities. They allowed an International team that was a perfect 4-0-0 at the 2015 Presidents Cup to stay in the match. As the back nine wore on, a great chance to win a point for the United States slipped away and in just under four hours, Grace and Oosthuizen defeated Koepka and Berger, 3 and 1, to give the International team its only full point of the opening session at the 2017 Presidents Cup.
“We knew coming this morning when we arrived it was going to be a tough day with conditions out there and it was just a grind,” Grace said. “But Louis and I, again, we stuck to the guns. We made the clutch things when we had to out there, and you know, kept the momentum going.”
With the wind blowing at 20 mph, the teams exchanged leads through the first six holes, but the match was all square heading to the 12th. A 325-yard par 4, it was halved with fours, but it marked the start of a two-hole stretch that turned out to be key to the match.
After backing off his tee shot, twice, Berger hit his driver 268 yards and left Koepka in a good position, just 39 yards away from the flag, with a great angle to the hole. Grace took a more conservative route and went with a driving iron, but his shot went into the rough and left Oosthuizen 94 yards away. After Oosthuizen’s approach ballooned in the wind and fell 67 feet short of the hole, Koepka had a great opportunity to put the hammer down, hit the ball close and give his partner a chance to win the hole. However, his pitch shot carried too far and rolled down a slope behind the hole before stopping 25 feet away.
After Grace hit a chip shot within 9 feet of the cup, and then Berger missed his long putt to win the hole and was conceded the tap-in, Oosthuizen made his putt and the hole was halved. The match remained all square, but the Americans should have been 1 up.
“I made a nice clutch putt on 12 for a halve and then we sort of just got the momentum going there,” Oosthuizen said afterward. “Then I hit a good tee shot on 13 and Branden a great second. So we just sort of really played solid from there.”
The International team also got some help from the Americans on 13 because from 140 yards away in the left rough, Berger’s approach shot came out low and failed to check on the green. It rolled through a collection area and stopped on a downslope, in the rough, 75 feet from the hole. Koepka tried a delicate flop shot, but it failed to clear a knoll and rolled back down into the tightly-mowed area. Berger then hit a pitch shot, but it raced by the flag and stopped 29 feet away.
The Americans conceded the hole to Grace and Oosthuizen, who needed two routine shots to get the ball 18 feet from the cup and suddenly, instead of being 1 up, the Americans were 1 down.
With a perfect 5-0-0 record as teammates in the Presidents Cup, Grace and Oosthuizen have to be considered the International team’s heavy hitters.
“We play similar styles of golf. We both hit it similar distances. You know, we actually both get very streaky at stages, as well,” Grace said. “We are good mates. We live close to each other in Palm Beach and similar back home and things like that, and we get along great. And (having) the record we have after the last one gives us a lot of confidence coming into this one. I know you can’t ride on past success, but it is nice knowing that you have done it and you can do it again. And it reflected today.”
Throughout the match, Fred Couples chaperoned Berger, 24, and Koepka, 27, giving them encouraging words and fist pumps. Still, with two other Presidents Cup rookies sitting out the first session, it was not surprising that one of the two was told he would sit out Friday’s four-ball session. Koepka has been paired with Dustin Johnson, creating one of the longest-hitting tandems in Presidents Cup history, but Berger will join Matt Kuchar on captain Steve Stricker’s bench. The lesson Berger and Koepka need to take away from Thursday’s play is that you’ve got to capitalize on your chances.