The highly anticipated Presidents Cup returned to Royal Melbourne Golf Club for the third time yesterday – the site of the only International Team victory in 12 attempts – with the honour of striking the first blow in anger bestowed upon USA player Justin Thomas.
Within minutes, his playing partner – team captain Tiger Woods – had stiffed his second shot to 18 inches to claim the hole, only to be trumped by Sungjae Im, playing in the group behind, who chipped in spectacularly for an eagle two.
With the players clearly up for it, and galleries already six to eight deep and finding their voice, the contest was underway in earnest.
Talk all week had centered on players respecting Royal Melbourne’s short par fours, and the wisdom of playing conservatively should risk overcome reward. It proved to be just that – talk – as player after player bombed the 341m first hole, and taking advantage of relatively benign, cool conditions, attacked pins at every opportunity around the course.
There was no better illustration than Dustin Johnson on the tricky 304m 11th, threading driver through the narrow, severely sloped green entrance, to three feet. Unfortunately, he went on to miss the short eagle putt, consigning himself and Gary Woodland to a 4&3 defeat at the hands of adopted Aussies, Louis Oosthuizen and Abraham Ancer.
The last time the Internationals held the lead after day one was back in 2006. Everyone from captain Ernie Els down knew how important it was to make a good start, and not to cede early advantage to a side battle-hardened by regular exposure to the white-hot Ryder Cup furnace.
Working against them was the absence of true home-town advantage, with Warrnambool’s Marc Leishman the closest thing to a player to having a local Sandbelt upbringing. If Europe has found a way to unite fans around players drawn from across the continent to make the Ryder Cup a hotbed of parochialism, the International concept remains a work in progress, with fans struggling to tie common threads between players from Korea, Japan, Chile, Mexico, Canada, China, South Africa and Australia.
As it happened, Leishman – along with partner Joaquin Niemann – was the first to be shown the door, shut out by Woods and Thomas 4&3. Woods – no stranger to Royal Melbourne – was a silent assassin, calm and composed, seemingly playing within himself, while twisting the knife with six birdies in the 15 holes required.
Pre-tournament, Woods hinted that he might only make two appearances before Sunday’s singles, preferring instead to carefully manage his fragile frame and to focus on captaincy duties. After this first round, he duly included himself for Friday’s foursomes, deciding that his team needs him more with a club, not a clipboard, in hand.
That was as good as it got for the USA. Adam Scott and Byeong-Hun An were never behind against Bryson DeChambeau, before closing things out 2&1.
Adam Hadwin and Im were the next to notch a point for the Internationals, sneaking through in a tight affair over Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, 1 up.
With Oosthuizen and Ancer already done, that left Hideki Matsuyama and CT Pan against Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson as the last match on the course. Matsuyama tightened the screws with a long birdie putt on the 17th, before a half on the final hole cemented the 1-up win.
Ironically, it was public villain number one Reed who had a final opportunity to limit the damage, but his putt slid by, leaving Woods to rethink his strategy for the coming rounds.
(Photo by Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Part of the responsibility for the US recovery will rest with fresh players Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler. Kuchar explained afterwards how, walking the course as a spectator, he was able to learn and gain a different perspective than he does when playing.
International captain Els was delighted to take an early 4-1 lead, and while it’s an unprecedented start, he expressed caution that Sunday night is still a long way away and a USA backlash is a given.
Experienced players Oosthuizen and Scott pointed to how focused their team is, and how the older players have been able to draw energy from the rookie players who played without fear, minus the scars of many lost battles.
That was beautifully illustrated by new player Pan, who batted away a leading question about Reed with the aplomb of a multiple major winner, making it clear that he was focused only on his own game, not any side issues.
It takes a fair effort for any golfer to shunt Woods out of the headlines, and Reed certainly dominated the lead-in courtesy of his questionable bunker manners last week in the Bahamas. The matter had threatened to turn ugly. Australia’s Cameron Smith was particularly keen to let Reed know what he thought of his actions and penalty, and there were murmurs that there were groups of fans preparing to heckle Reed at every opportunity.
Teammate Thomas seemed to take heat out of the situation, posting a video of him mocking Reed’s bunker technique during practice – and in the process, showing how to make a point while also putting the deed into perspective and, importantly, into the past.
In the end, there were boos on the first tee, and one loud heckler made a fool more out of himself than his target. And while there was a loud Bronx cheer when Reed’s tee shot found a bunker, the gallery quickly settled into enjoying the action and paying all of the golfers due respect.
Not for the first time in its illustrious history, the beautifully presented Royal Melbourne emerged a standout winner, along with a knowledgeable crowd. Melbourne has been starved of elite golf in recent years, and fans have embraced this opportunity with open arms.
Now that the Internationals have shot out of the blocks and fans have had a chance to familiarise themselves with players like Pan, Im, Hadwin and Niemann, expect Els’ wish for more intense barracking to be ramped up as the USA recovery mission begins.