United States team player Steve Stricker, left, reacts to hitting his bunker-shot on the 18th hole during at the Presidents Cup on Thursday.
DUBLIN, Ohio — The Americans survived a late rally Thursday and put the International team in a familiar hole at the Presidents Cup.
Steve Stricker blasted out of a plugged lie in the face of a bunker to 3 feet to save par as he and 20-year-old Jordan Spieth hung on for a 1-up win in the final match on the course at Muirfield Village. That win gave the Americans a 3˝-2˝ lead, the fourth straight time they have led after the opening session in the Presidents Cup.
The Presidents Cup at least was close for one day, and it was entertaining beyond the golf.
Former president George W. Bush was on the first tee — not the greatest omen because he also met with the Americans at Medinah before they coughed up the Ryder Cup — and Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel made light of their bad haircuts by wearing wigs onto the tee.
Assistant captain Davis Love III found a pet squirrel small enough to fit into his pocket, and Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn gave Tiger Woods a brief scare when she put the squirrel on his back.
After all that, the Internationals have never been so happy to be trailing.
The Americans led in every match early in the session and were ahead in five of them when thunderstorms and a few bursts of rain stopped play for 1˝ hours. None of the matches had gone more than 10 holes, though the delay at least gave the International team a sense of starting over.
“The break did us really good,” Oosthuizen said. “We came back out, felt refreshed and just played well.”
Jason Day and Graham DeLaet rallied from 3 down to Hunter Mahan and Brandt Snedeker, winning on the 18th hole when Day made a 20-foot birdie putt. In the best match of the day, Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama battled from 2 down to Bill Haas and Webb Simpson with five holes to play to earn a halve when the 21-year-old Japanese star hit his approach to 2 feet for birdie on the last hole.
Oosthuizen and Schwartzel gave Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson their first loss. The South Africans, best of friends since junior golf, took their first lead on the 11th hole and didn’t lose another hole until they had a 2-and-1 win.
The Internationals looked as if they might even pull even at the end of the day. Ernie Els made his first birdie of the round at just the right time, a 12-foot putt on the 17th hole that extended their match with Stricker and Spieth.
Spieth, who overcame a nervous start with several big putts, pulled his tee shot into the water on the 18th. Stricker’s approach plugged into the bunker. Brendon De Jonge had a birdie chance from 18 feet, and it looked for a moment like even a par might win the hole and end the match in a halve. Stricker popped it out of the sand and watched it trickle to 3 feet as he lightly pumped his fist. De Jonge’s putt missed and the Americans had the lead.
The Presidents Cup began with fourballs for the first time since 1996, which should have favored the Internationals. Instead, the Americans won their first fourballs session in 10 years, dating to the second day in South Africa.
Still, this was a moral victory for the International team.
“What we showed today was plenty of heart,” Scott said. He said that a one-point deficit was not a problem. “We can make that up with the first match tomorrow.”
Muirfield Village was set up for birdies, and there were plenty of them. Ten of the 12 teams were at least 8-under par in their rounds.
The exceptions were Angel Cabrera and Marc Leishman, who were only 3 under in the shortest match of the day. They lost, 5 and 4, to Woods and Matt Kuchar. The Americans used a handshake from “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and they used it a lot.
“That was definitely all me,” Kuchar said. “That stems from `Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ I figured this guy was the perfect Carlton.”
Woods turned out to be a decent partner, too. Kuchar was his 19th partner in the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup, and it was a solid debut. Kuchar won at Muirfield Village in June, while Woods is a five-time Memorial champion.
“We both have the low stroke averages in this tournament’s history,” Woods said. “Put us together and we feel very comfortable how to play this golf course.”
Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson in the anchor match were 3 up through three holes and never looked back. Branden Grace and Richard Sterne, the only all-rookie team for the International side, were 2 down after 10 and never got any closer. The match ended on the 15th hole.
Mickelson and Bradley were 3-0 as partners in the Ryder Cup last year and had a 2-up lead through seven holes on Bradley’s eagle. They didn’t win another hole the rest of the way, however.
“I had good rhythm early on and when we went back out (after the delay), I was just a little bit tight and didn’t make very good swings,” Mickelson said.
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