Things were looking decidedly grim for Ernie Els’ International Team halfway through the Saturday afternoon foursomes. Then there was a huge late momentum shift that saw the captain and his team ecstatic going into the final round Sunday. Tiger Woods, who stuck to non-playing captain’s duties for the day, appeared less pleased. CHRIS VOGT reports.
Rain was due, and so it came, giving Royal Melbourne a quick dusting prior to the first of the morning four-balls. A 4 point lead for the Internationals would take some defending in light of yesterday’s late heroics from the Americans. Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay and Rickie Fowler were huge in the last hour, taking some air out of the International team’s hard-won momentum.
But a new day, new pairings, and a softer golf course for those out early. Captain Tiger Woods was there, smiling through the drizzle, set to stroll with his charges while plotting the afternoon foursomes.
A strong opening from Thomas who, paired with Fowler, had the better of Mark Leishman and Haotong Li at the second hole. It was quickly countered by Li at the sublime third, and they were away. Behind them, birdie chances everywhere, yet few taken. Then Mexican Abraham Ancer curled a long one down and across that beautiful third green for a crowd-inciting moment. It was calmly matched by Thomas. Such is matchplay.
Royal Melbourne’s fourth hole is dazzling. The apparent simplicity of its conception belies the devilish difficulty in actually playing it. There’s just no easy shot; only hard ones, and harder ones. Pars have been gold this week. To try for more seems almost disrespectful.
Patrick Reed has had a tough week of it. His troubles are well-documented, yet he’s hung in and stayed focused for captain and country. Difficult to warm to he may be, but his touch and tenacity may yet win over the world’s most knowledgeable golf fans.
Mid-morning, and both teams had asserted themselves, reaching the turn each with a lead and tied match. Every player had a moment out there; the quality of shot-making in the damp, breezy chill quite remarkable. They seem to have accepted hard bounce as part of the game. It’s a rare delight to watch the Americans plot a way to the green and the hole that doesn’t resemble dart-throwing. Outside of their annual crack at The Open Championship, we seldom see them take putter from off the green. And they’ve positively embraced the time-honoured bounce-short-and-roll-on approach that works both here and on those glorious links courses in the U.K. Royal Melbourne doesn’t yield easily, and won’t capitulate even to the world’s best. Yet the balance between course and player has felt just right. The crowd has sensed it, too, acknowledging daring and graft in equal measure.
The US team claimed the first point of the day at 16, Justin Thomas’ birdie enough to down Leishman and Li. The Asian pair Hideki Matsuyama and CT Pan were on it right from the first tee, and continued their roll through much of the morning. Mr Pan’s putter worked wonders, his partner steady throughout. They duly won their match 5 and 3.
Ancer looks the best of the Internationals, his compact game and temperament well-suited to the challenges of matchplay and Royal Melbourne. The Mexican and his partner Sungjae Im maintained a hard-earned lead first gained at the eighth, claiming a point at 16.
Matt Kucher seems unflappable on a golf course. The antithesis of many of his intense countrymen, Kucher lopes along, smiling, looking about. He hits the ball, takes what comes, then hits it again. ‘Kooch’ and partner Tony Finau duelled with Adam Scott and Byeong Hun An in the morning’s tightest match. Kucher’s miss from two feet on 15 didn’t alter his demeanour, but it was telling nonetheless. The U.S. scraped half a point to trail by four heading into the afternoon…
Saturday afternoon and things began to unravel for the Internationals
Foursomes. A quaint format, and a most enjoyable one that is offered all too rarely at club and professional level. More’s the pity, too, as it presents unique challenges, reinforces camaraderie, and tests the temperament of even the coolest.
Interesting selections, for different reasons, by both captains. But it mattered little, for the format conjures surprises at every turn, regardless of pairings.
A promising start by Adam Scott and Louis Oosthuizen was turned, by the ninth, into a slender U.S. lead. Dustin Johnson has every shot at his disposal, so seems made for this format. Yet a makeable putt slipped by at ten, restoring the tie.
Behind them, Justin Thomas continued his week’s work, this time with the popular Rickie Fowler for company. Five up after seven and set for a rout of Leishman and Ancer.
With each hole there came a shift towards the U.S. The clear momentum change subdued the crowd, too. Kucher and Finau let the energy from their salvaged four-ball half-point flow into the afternoon, looking in control of their match.
Following it all were the biggest galleries Australian golf has seen in many years. Thick along fairways and ringing greens, but Royal Melbourne accommodates its spectators with ease. And they bring so much to the spectacle. Well-behaved and respectfully tipsy, their attire colourful, the ovations thrilling.
Surely the only thing more fickle than Melbourne’s weather is momentum in golf. Deep into the business end of the matches, the United States had yet to put one to rest. What shaped as a drubbing soon tightened into a cluster of intense battles.
Johnson continued to miss putts but he and Gary Woodland secured a point on seventeen. Act two of the Thomas and Fowler show saw the Americans relinquish their starring roles, conceding consecutive birdies. Ancer and Leishman continued to press, taking it to eighteen. After Fowler extracted remarkably from under a tee tree, Leish stiffed his approach to tie the match. Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay responded with another point for the U.S. before Kucher and Finau eaked out a tie with the Internationals’ Joaquin Niemann and Byeong Hun An.
As expected, foursomes created drama, delivered action. Less likely was the retention of a lead by the Internationals. They turn to Sunday’s singles with a 10-8 advantage. Tiger will pull the focus as he always does, but he’ll be in distinguished company.
Leishman was just one of an elated Internationals Team.
“That’s probably the best I’ve ever felt on a golf course … and we only tied the match,” he told a media conference later.