Tiger Woods’ first turn as Presidents Cup captain hasn’t been boring

Golf

MELBOURNE, Australia – His demeanor betrayed his words, the solemn vibe outweighing what he was saying. Tiger Woods might have been talking a good game, but his guys were not playing one, not even close.

And thus, Woods, the U.S. Presidents Cup captain who was performing as well as anyone on either team, faced a multitude of questions.

Why are you sitting out when your team needs you?

Why did you play Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson again?

Why are you so far behind?

Woods, understandably, had plenty to answer for early Saturday afternoon at Royal Melbourne, as his U.S. Presidents Cup team faced a surprisingly large deficit through three sessions, trailing 9-5 and without a lot of hope.

To that point, only one of the U.S. points was achieved without the help of Justin Thomas.

“I trust my guys,” seemed more a comment of obligation than conviction as Woods headed out to the course for the crucial afternoon foursomes session that very well might define his captaincy.

Those matches flipped the Presidents Cup in what promises to be a drama-filled Sunday.

All of a sudden, with Woods electing to keep his clubs in the bag and stick to his captain’s role, the Americans came alive, forging ahead in all four matches before a tense final hour got the International side back out front — but barely.

It was great for the Presidents Cup to have so much back and forth, and it went to the very final hole, the final green as the Matt Kuchar/Tony Finau match ended in a tie with Ben An and Joaquin Niemann.

The score: Internationals 10, United States 8.

“There was a point where it looked like it might be 9-1 Internationals (on Friday) and for us to be sitting here 10-8, certainly feel good,” Kuchar said. “Any time you’re in a tournament, you want to be a leader and have the lead.

“We’d rather be in the International position right now, but for us to be starting at 9-1 as a potential position and be at 10-8, I think the guys in the locker room feel awfully good about what we were able to do today, and excited for tomorrow’s singles.”

Along the way, Thomas and Rickie Fowler blew a 5-up lead, Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland stepped up with their best play of the week, and Kuchar and Finau held onto a dear half point in the very last match.

And Thomas continued his sizzling play, although blowing a half point Saturday afternoon along with Fowler will sting. They were cruising with a 5-up lead through 11 holes against Marc Leishman and Abraham Ancer, only to be tied when they lost the last three holes — all with bogeys.

“Speechless,” Thomas said. “It’s unacceptable for us to get a half point.”

And yet, that is the beauty of this competition (and the Ryder Cup.) Even the best player so far on both teams had his moments of difficulty.

Still, Thomas is 3-0-1 in this Presidents Cup and improved his overall in two Presidents Cups and a Ryder Cup to 10-2-2. And the Americans finally found some success, winning their first session of the tournament.

What happened?

Woods’ players stepped up for him, diluting a lot of the consternation. It wasn’t Tiger’s fault that Johnson, Woodland, Bryson DeChambeau, Reed and Simpson had all struggled to that point. (And it’s not Woods’ fault that Thomas and Fowler imploded.)

But it was curious that he decided to send Reed and Simpson out for a third time Saturday after they had lost both of their previous matches. Reed has provided too much negative drama this week after the rules issue and subsequent fallout he faced at the Hero World Challenge — and then an incident with his caddie and a spectator after the first session on Day 3.

He made it worse with some poor play on Friday, and again on Saturday — when he failed to make a birdie. Reed is now 1-5 in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup of the last two years.

“They just ran into some guys that played well, made crucial putts at certain times,” Woods said. “Today, they just didn’t play well, and that happens.”

Woods’ decision to bench himself seemed more curious. He was solid in both of his matches with Thomas, navigating the tricky Royal Melbourne course as well or better than anyone. He made six birdies on Thursday, and made a couple of clutch putts and shots on Friday.

The Masters champion, who picked himself for the team after winning the Zozo Championship, was never going to play all five matches, so a Saturday morning break seemed prudent. But when he kept himself out in the afternoon, it led some to wonder if he was sick or injured.

Woods denied both, and suggested he was sticking to a plan he had in place.

“You have to do what’s best for the team, and I’m getting ready for the singles,” Woods said.

As it turned out, it’s difficult to imagine Woods helping the Americans do any better than they did without his clubs in action.

Given where they were, to be within two points going into the 12 singles matches is a huge victory for the Americans. Overcoming four-point final-day deficits is the stuff of the U.S. at Brookline and the Europeans at Medinah. Miracles, really.

Now it’s up for grabs. Yes, the Americans need 7.5 points, while the Internationals need just 5.5.

But all the second-guessing can be put aside for now.

“It’s been four really great sessions, and today was some of the most exciting golf I’ve seen for a long time,” said Ernie Els, the International captain. “For us to scratch and scramble for one point, the guys were very excited about that.”

It won’t be a long wait.

Woods is in the first singles pairing against Abraham Ancer, who weeks ago said he’d love to go up against the U.S. captain on the final day. Ancer is also 3-0-1 this week.

Justin Thomas will go against Cam Smith, who stirred a good bit of venom toward Reed with his “cheat” comments earlier in the week, in the 10th match.

And if it comes down to the end, it’ll be Australia’s Marc Leishman against Rickie Fowler.

“We knew it was going to be a battle,” Kuchar said. “We knew we’d have to play some really good golf to come out with a victory, and it’s showing just that.”

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