JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas turned up a month ago at Liberty National on their way to The Northern Trust on Long Island to see the course ahead of the 12th Presidents Cup.
Fowler blistered the place, shooting 10 under par. Thursday, in far more challenging and windy conditions and playing this time for real, Fowler and Thomas pretty much picked up right where they had left things. They got the U.S. off to a rocket-fast start, drumming Hideki Matsuyama and Charl Schwartzel, 6 and 4, in the opening foursomes session.
One down after two holes, Fowler pitched in from 72 feet from left of the green at the par-4 third hole to square the match, and once the USA flipped the par-5 fourth to go 1 up – the Internationals were in a greenside bunker in two and made 5 – Team USA’s leadoff tandem was not going to be caught.
By the time the teams stepped to the 10th tee, the Internationals were reeling and the U.S. was in complete command, 4 up.
“Every time it looked like we would maybe do something, they would chip in or something,” Schwartzel said. “That’s the thing with 18-hole match play – there’s key moments in the round, it’s big momentum shifts in your favor or not in your favor. We had a few of those, and on top of it, both me and Hideki hit loose shots. You’re sort of taking yourself out of it.”
Fowler was a steady influence on his younger partner and Florida neighbor. Thomas may be a major champion, FedEx Cup champion and before too long, the PGA Tour’s player of the year, but he’s a rookie in this competition, and he needed some settling down in the early stages.
Fowler left Thomas only 105 yards into the 427-yard first hole in the alternate-shot format, splitting the fairway on the most demanding tee shot on the course, and Thomas promptly juiced a wedge some 30 feet above the hole, atop the wrong shelf.
Thomas called the start of his round “a good nervous.”
“It’s not the don’t-mess-up kind of nervous. It’s like, how-am-I-supposed-to-hit-a-wedge-105-yards nervous?” he said. “The adrenaline is pumping. But like any round, once you hit a couple shots, a couple holes, you get out there … it’s just kind of what we do.”
Thomas did contribute some nice par-saving putts and when Thomas smoked a drive just right of the green at the 325-yard 12th and Fowler knocked a chip 7 feet past, Thomas was there to pick him up, knocking down the birdie putt to go 5 up.
International captain Nick Price was hoping for big things from Matsuyama, his highest-ranked player (he’s No. 3 in the world after Matsuyama had struggled to find any in the FedEx Cup Playoffs. But he was out of sorts, and Schwartzel wasn’t much help.
After hitting the first two greens in regulation (and going 1 up), the Internationals would hit only one more green in regulation before reaching the 13th hole.
“We really didn’t get into our game today,” Matsuyama said through a translator. “The rhythm just wasn’t there.”
The two were conceded a birdie at the second hole, which the USA botched, and after that, made only a lone birdie, that coming at the short 10th. They made four bogeys and a double in a seven-hole stretch beginning at No. 6.
What was missing?
“I’m not really sure,” Matsuyama said. “I’m sure Charl and I will talk about it, and hopefully we can fix it.”
Schwartzel lipped out from 4 feet for par to win the par-4 sixth then stepped up and tugged a tee shot into the water at the 225-yard seventh. Suddenly the U.S. built a 3-up advantage.
With a rookie at his side, Rickie Fowler played beautifully, driving it very well and contributing some nice chips to set up solid par saves.
Team USA was off to a scratchy start, but Fowler got the team going with a clutch pitch-in at the par-4 third hole from 72 feet, the ball curling left-to-right and falling into the hole.
Thomas was one of four rookies in the U.S. foursomes lineup on Thursday, and the only one to win a full point. … Matsuyama is now 0-2-1 in first-day play at the Presidents Cup.