CHARLOTTE, NC — There’s no question that the star-spangled spectators who streamed through the Quail Hollow Club’s gates on Thursday morning were looking for a win for the red, white and blue.
But even they didn’t want things to start like that this.
The Presidents Cup is not the Ryder Cup. In the Ryder Cup, Team Europe has proven itself such a formidable opponent that even in last year’s 19-9 rout at Whistling Straits, there was no thought of feeling mercy. That was payback for previous lost Cups. It was Team USA defending its home turf. Team Europe still leads the modern Ryder Cup’s history, after all, they’re 11-9-1 since 1979, when the team added continental Europe.
The Presidents Cup has a decidedly different history. Since the first competition in 1994, Team USA is 13-1-1. This rivalry is not a rivalry. For the Presidents Cup to keep its juice, the Internationals need to prove themselves worthy opponents. Even if the Internationals are this Cup’s little brothers, every little brother would rather get beat up than ignored, deemed unable to handle the punishment.
That doesn’t mean the Internationals need to actually win this week. But it sure would be nice if they kept it close. The 2019 edition of the event was spectacular, after all; the US staged a final-round comeback to win 16-14. Those of us watching relished the competition and never once questioned whether it was a fair fight.
But this year’s event began differently. Trevor Immelman’s squad sent its pair of veteran leaders out first: Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama would set the pace. But Team USA countered with its strongest pairing, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay. They took the lead at No. 3 to put the first red flag on the board. They never looked back.
“Pat sent a text out last night to [Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth], being the lead two matches, saying ‘let’s try to set a tone.’ That’s what Pat and I talked about yesterday, and that’s what we tried to do today,” Schauffele said.
Birdies at 5, 6 and 7 put Schauffele and Cantlay 4 up. It was a dream start for their squad: by that point, their teammates led the other four matches, too. But it was a nightmare for any visions of a competitive event. The only thing this tournament didn’t need was a US blowout. But suddenly it looked like a blowout. Team USA was ahead 5-0 and rolling.
The International Team’s struggles were not taking place in a vacuum. There’s no telling exactly how the absence of LIV defectors like Cameron Smith, Joaquin Niemann and Louis Oosthuizen have affected the team — but there’s no question it’s a big blow. Quail Hollow is a large stadium that favors the big-bombing Americans, too, adding to their advantage. And facing down US fans on foreign soil is no easy task. There’s a reason the underdogs entered the week as high as +750 on sportsbooks.
Scott and Matsuyama went out with a whimper, making bogeys at 11, 12 and 13 to lose 6&5. The US team looked like it was putting into different-sized holes; every few minutes another pro in blue and white made a bomb. After nine holes, the US team led every single match.
But while this International squad may lack firepower, they’re not short of pride.
“We’re going to keep fighting. It’s what we do. It’s the type of mentality that this team has,” Immelman said.”
As the day wore on, the other four matches began to tighten. No US squad could pull away. Sungjae Im and Corey Conners held steady at 1 down to Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. Tom Kim and KH Lee went from 2 down to 1 down to tie with Cameron Young and Collin Morikawa. When Sam Burns and Scottie Scheffler double-bogeyed No. 15, the Internationals seized advantage, then poured it on with birdies at 16 and 17. Suddenly there was a black-and-yellow flag on the board. Taylor Pendrith and Mito Pereira made birdie at 13 to tie up their match, too. Suddenly what had looked like a 5-0 start could flip. For a moment, fans began to do the math — could the Internationals finish the session with the lead?
American captain Davis Love III felt the uneasiness from his side.
“I’ve been doing this enough, it can go either way,” he said. “It looked red all day, but somebody came on the radio and said, ‘yeah, but we’re 1 up in three matches and those can flip real quick.'”
It wasn’t to be. At No. 15, Thomas faced a 27-footer for par, while Conners had a seven-footer. Thomas poured his in the center. Conners missed his left. The two-shot swing put Team USA 2 up, and that’s where the match finished.
“We either win or lose on that, right? You win when you pick up your partner, and he did that. That switch we had on the 15th was unreal there,” Spieth said. “It was the difference in the match.”
At No. 17, Morikawa — clinging to a 1 up lead — hit his approach shot to 25 feet. Young rammed that birdie putt into the back of the cup. Match over, 2 and 1.
“Anything of that distance out here is tricky just to get close,” Young said. “So I really was just trying to hit a putt that was consistent with how I had hit them throughout the day, trying to make Collin’s life easy on the second one. And every once in a while, those go in.”
There was some consolation for the Internationals when the team of Davis and Kim shut out Burns and Scheffler, winning the last four holes for an improbable, 2 up comeback win.
“The first update [on the other matches] I got was on 11, and it didn’t sound great,” Davis said. “It felt great to get a little bit of the other color on the board because it ended up being a little one-sided. Very proud we managed to get some work done for the internationals.”
But the final point of the day swung the other direction at No. 18 when Pereira pulled his tee shot, Pendrith found the bunker, Pereira hit it to 10 feet and Pendrith missed the putt. Max Homa cozied his birdie putt close enough to clinch the final point, 1 up, giving the Americans the 4-1 advantage.
“Unreal. It was an unreal day. So giddy all week, and then today I was on a million,” Homa said.
But don’t cancel the tournament just yet. The Presidents Cup is a marathon! Just five of the event’s 30 points were given out on Thursday. Despite the red flooding the scoreboard, there’s plenty that could still happen. This is still match-play golf, after all. It’s a highly unpredictable format. There’s room for hope, no matter the odds.
“The message has remained the same,” Immelman said, asked how he’ll address his team. “The message is to play free. Nobody here expects us to win. We’ve got to have that belief deep down. Go out there and fight. We’re up against maybe the strongest American team ever assembled on paper. So, you know, we do what we do. We run our system. We get ready and prepare, and we play as hard as we can. Chips will fall where they may.”