International Team maintains healthy lead
December 13, 2019
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
The International team hold a three-point lead at the Presidents Cup
MELBOURNE, Australia – Ernie Els was quick to act.
The captain of the International team at the Presidents Cup sensed a flatness in the attitude of his squad for a brief moment or two after they allowed a minor fightback from the U.S. late Friday at Royal Melbourne.
At one point the Internationals were well on track to win their first Foursomes session since 2005, leading in all five matches on the back nine. But some clutch putts from the U.S. allowed a late reprieve as the two teams shared the session 2.5-2.5.
Despite the momentum shift Els rallied his troops and reminded them of the overall score. A 6.5-3.5 lead is their first through two sessions since 2005 and their biggest through the same period since a four point advantage in 1998.
This was no time for negativity. This was a time to embrace their strong position.
“This (U.S. team) is the best. Sometimes it bites you. But you put a spear in it and bite back,” Els said.
“It’s perspective, isn’t it. I’ve got to look at where we are. It’s easy to just look at where we could have been, because it was looking really unbelievable. But we're in a very good position.”
Els rammed home the message to his men. And in the end the flip might have been a timely reminder that when you count your chickens before they hatch you are asking for trouble.
“My guys learnt a lot from this afternoon. We won't make this happen again,” Els said.
“I want my guys to play as good as they can and get as good a result as they can. They have put a lot of work into this and it's been quite a week already. This was probably good for them, showing what can happen the last couple holes.”
If Els sounds intense it is because he is. ‘The Big Easy’ as he is commonly known has put countless months and hours into this captaincy as he tries to produce the first International win since 1998. With 20 of the points still up for grabs his side needs nine more.
Eight of them go on the line on Saturday with four morning Four-Ball matches and then four afternoon Foursomes battles. Els has continued to lean on his secret analytics and data when it comes to his pairings. Three of his victorious Four-Ball teams from Thursday reunite after being split on Friday.
The only change is Haotong Li coming in to play for the first time this week – possibly a product of the rule where a player must play at least one team session before Sunday Singles. To those in the team, his steadfastness on his pre-tournament plan is not surprising.
“It almost looks like he wants this more than when he's out there playing,” fellow South African and team member Louis Oosthuizen says of Els.
“You could see him; I love the passion. I think if you give him a club in his hand, he'll hit the shot for you. He's so into this week and he's been a real good captain.
“He's been an unbelievable player, as well, but this means a lot for me seeing how he is as a captain and how involved he is. He's brilliant.”
For U.S. captain Tiger Woods the final hour or so is something he and his side are grasping with two hands. Staring down the barrel of a potential 9-1 deficit they now have the ability to wrestle the lead before the Saturday afternoon Foursomes should they come out hot in Four-Ball.
Woods has sat himself out for the first time Saturday morning after going 2-0 with Justin Thomas over the first two sessions. The other 10 Americans have combined for just 1.5 points so far and will need to shoulder more of the load.
As their best performer Woods could have once again sent himself out but the 82-time PGA TOUR winner is perhaps mindful of burnout before the Singles. Whether he plays Foursomes in the afternoon remains to be seen.
He has replaced himself with Rickie Fowler who is 2-0-1 with Thomas as a partner having played together at the 2017 Presidents Cup. Thomas provided the big putt on Friday, making a 17-foot birdie on the final hole to win the match.
“That was kind of the game plan. It would be hard for me to go all the sessions,” Woods said.
“I've been fortunate enough to go out there with J.T. and we've gotten two points. J.T. played great and Rickie played awesome this afternoon. They have been looking forward to playing with one another. They have had success before and so I sent them back out.”
The other American win Friday came in similar fashion as Patrick Cantlay came up clutch on the final hole to provide victory with Xander Schauffele over Adam Hadwin and Joaquin Niemann. Fowler and Gary Woodland also won two of the last three holes to steal a half point against Sungjae Im and Cameron Smith.
“At one point … it looked pretty bleak, but the guys turned it around,” Woods said.
“They played phenomenal coming in. It was important for us to end the way we did and it totally changed the last hour.”
Marc Leishman, who combined with Oosthuizen for a 3 and 2 win over Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar, felt the jetlag and rust was wearing off the U.S. side who arrived on Monday from the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.
Woods said it was more about the conditions of Royal Melbourne – whose hard and fast greens are a stark contrast to most PGA TOUR events.
“The energy has been there. These guys are all young and extremely excited about being a part of this team,” Woods said.
“More than anything, it's just getting a feel for this golf course. It is fast. It was faster today than it was yesterday. The guys have been able to go out there and get a feel for it. It's amazing, I was telling the guys, the acceptance of a wedge shot to 20, 30, 40, feet is a good shot. That's normally not the case, but it is this week.”
Saturday becomes somewhat critical if history is a guide. The U.S. team has trailed only twice going to Singles in the history of the Presidents Cup. On those occasions they lost in 1998 and tied in 2003. The Internationals want to ensure they keep pace out front.
“We are trying to not get ahead of ourselves at all. It's a long way to go, but Ernie and his team of assistants have done a fantastic job of getting us prepared mentally and strategy-wise with the golf course,” International veteran Adam Scott said.
“There's a calmness, a calm confidence about our team here.”