JERSEY CITY, N.J. – A memorable start that featured the previous three U.S. presidents on the first tee ended with a familiar result in the Presidents Cup. The Americans are out to another big lead in the event they haven’t lost in nearly two decades.
PGA champion Justin Thomas made his professional team debut with a short day of work as he and Rickie Fowler lost only two holes in a 6-and-4 victory. Jordan Spieth holed a 35-foot putt that sent him and Patrick Reed to another victory. Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar remained unbeaten.
The Americans won the opening session for the sixth straight time in the Presidents Cup and built a 3 1/2-1 1/2 lead Thursday after the opening foursomes matches.
Phil Mickelson, playing in his 23rd consecutive team competition, ended the tough, wind-swept afternoon at Liberty National by missing an 8-foot par putt, or the U.S. lead would have been even greater. He and Kevin Kisner were 1 down with two holes remaining to Jason Day and Marc Leishman, so a half-point wasn’t bad.
Mickelson’s only complaint was that he botched his selfie with former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, with barely his head showing.
For the most part, everything else went the Americans’ way.
The lone bright spot for the International team was Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace, who improved to 5-0 as a tandem. The South African duo pulled away for a 3-and-1 victory over U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger.
The stars on this day didn’t hit a shot.
The leader of every country where the Presidents Cup is held are invited to be honorary chairman, but this was a first – three U.S. presidents together at this event, sitting together in a box on the first tee and then posing with the trophy, the players and their wives.
“I was looking forward to this Presidents Cup for a very long time, and I didn’t expect all the presidents to be there,” Charl Schwartzel of South Africa said. “Just to get to meet them was a dream come true for me. Then to hit that first tee shot with the wind pumping off the right was quite intimidating.”
The Americans have a 9-1-1 lead in the series, their lone loss in 1998 at Royal Melbourne a few weeks before Christmas.
Nick Price, back as International captain for the third time, was not ready to panic. The Americans opened a 4-1 lead after the opening session two years ago in South Korea, and that came down to the final match.
“We always get ourselves behind a little bit in alternate shot,” Day said. “It would have been nice to be 3-2, but once again, we’re not that far behind. The American side is very, very talented and stacked. But I think our team and our boys are ready to rally behind everyone, and hopefully we can finish strong later on in the week.”
Fowler holed a 70-foot pitch and Thomas followed with a 12-foot birdie, and they were never seriously challenged.
Spieth and Reed improved to 6-1-2 as a tandem in the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup. They won four straight holes early in the match against International rookies Si Woo Kim and Emiliano Grillo. And when the match looked as if it had a chance to get tight, Spieth rolled in his big putt and they were on their way.
Johnson and Kuchar are unbeaten in four matches together, and they had to be at their best.
The gusts topped 20 mph and felt even stronger on exposed areas of Liberty National, which sits across New York Harbor from Manhattan. The par-3 10th hole was so difficult to judge the wind that Adam Scott hit a tee shot that sailed over the green into a hazard, while Spieth in the match behind him came up some 60 feet short of the hole in a bunker.
Johnson and Kuchar didn’t make a single bogey, remarkable in the format and in the wind, and they still didn’t take the lead until Johnson’s tee shot on the par-3 16th with a strong wind at his back stopped 5 feet away. Scott came up short, and then missed a 6-foot par putt. Scott and Jhonattan Vegas never caught up.
“In alternate shot, in these conditions, not to make a bogey and for us to just win 1 up, that’s a heck of a battle that we had with those guys,” Kuchar said.
Leishman was playing with his sixth partner in his last six Presidents Cup matches. He and Day were 1 up with two holes to play when Leishman missed the fairway on the 17th hole and they made bogey. On the 18th, Mickelson went over the green in a swale, while Day came up short. Both teams made bogey for the halve.
Friday features five matches of fourballs, followed by a full day of foursomes and fourballs Saturday and the decisive Sunday singles.
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