JERSEY CITY, N.J. – No, this isn’t good. If you’re an International player at the 12th Presidents Cup and trying to join all your fellow “ants” in trying to push that rubber tree up the enormous hill, a two-point deficit after Day 1 at Liberty National is the last place you need to be.
Day 1 result: U.S. 3.5, Internationals 1.5. We’ve all seen this movie, no?
This is golf’s group that can’t shoot straight, a team that arrives with so many more challenges than those across the locker room in the red, white and blue department. Different cultures. Different languages. Different sets of challenges. An overall Presidents Cup mark of 1-9-1. Sure, they’re trying, and they have a class leader in Nick Price. Some envision a day when the Presidents Cup is more relevant around the globe than the Ryder Cup, but not if it continues to be the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals.
The Internationals are fishing and hunting for solutions and combinations that have yet to prove themselves. Right now, Price has two solid pairings (South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace, and Aussies Jason Day and Marc Leishman), and after that Price could use a crystal ball, new dart board and some Tarot cards. A slow start is the last thing his side could afford.
The Internationals have some hungry young guys, which is great, but they come into this match a prohibitive underdog against a loaded U.S. side (which includes three 2017 major champions). And once again, though it’s early days, as they say in Oz, they are in a troubling hole before we’ve barely got started.
First things first. Thursday at Liberty National was a good day to be an assistant captain riding along in a cart. After a few days of red-hot and sunny, Thursday brought cooler temps and higher winds. Players used to getting aggressive and making birdies at Liberty National were instead left to battle and scrape and claw for pars, and many won holes that way.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, the top-ranked player on Price’s side – he is World No. 3 – had a terrific year and was a real force in the majors, but he hasn’t shown any form since last month’s PGA Championship. He broke his driver at the BMW Championship and didn’t play very well in the four-event series FedEx Cup Playoffs. Thursday he went out first with former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel – the team’s “tone-setter” pairing – and got thumped, 6 and 4, by Rickie Fowler and rookie Justin Thomas.
Adam Scott, an eight-time participant who is said to want to grip that Presidents Cup more than anyone on his team, lost his match. Day and Leishman led 1 up with two to play and were lucky to escape with a halve, the only thing keeping the team from a 4-1 deficit being a 7-footer for par from Phil Mickelson at the last that slid right of the cup.
So the players and captain Price can try to put a great face on it, saying they are in better shape after Day 1 than they were two years ago in South Korea (they trailed 4-1 there and probably should have won the overall match, but didn’t). Once again the International team is down, and this time, a younger, more vibrant U.S. team is already talking about when and where to put their metal spikes on their collective throats.
With the winds gusting past 20 mph at times, precision was imperative, and the Internationals had at least two pairings (Matsuyama-Schwartzel and rookies Si Woo Kim and Emiliano Grillo, who lost 5 and 4 to Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed) with golf ball issues. These are small issues, but the type of details that can make a difference when there are nine points available in foursomes, a format in which the Internationals have not fared well.
The Internationals now have established players on the roster who have played three or four Presidents Cups, and they need leaders to step forward. Oosthuizen and Grace have raised their hands, running their record to 5-0 in team play over the last two cups with another victory Thursday. But Price needs more. Matsuyama is only 25, and he carries a great weight on his shoulders in trying to become the first player from Japan to win one of golf’s four majors. Earlier this season, before Dustin Johnson and then Justin Thomas took flight, he was the best golfer on the planet. Thursday, though, he looked like just another guy. It’s one day, sure. It’s golf. But the Internationals need so many things to go right to turn the winds in this event.
“You know, he’s had such a huge year,” Price said Thursday evening of Matsuyama. “I think he’s probably a little tired, but he played so well in the practice rounds. You know, and I think today, it was a little bit of a ball issue with the two of them, which, you know, we didn’t really pick up because it wasn’t windy the last two practice days.
“Once you get behind and you start trying to push, it oftentimes backfires on you. So I don’t think either of them (Matsuyama and Schwartzel) really played that poorly. Just the circumstances, which we should have read a little better with the wind.
“But that’s one of those things.”
Yep, one of those things. Matsuyama goes out first again on Friday, this time in four-ball, and this time alongside Adam Hadwin, a quiet and reserved Presidents Cup rookie from Canada. Price predicts fireworks.
He needs them.