MELBOURNE (AFP) – Ernie Els’ young International team got off to dream Presidents Cup start as they stunned Tiger Woods’ star-studded United States (US) to take a 4-1 lead after the opening fourballs yesterday.
The Americans were heavy favourites ahead of the matchplay event at Royal Melbourne, having won all but one of the 12 editions of the biennial clash, with one drawn.
But Els boasts intimate knowledge of the difficult sandbelt layout where he holds the course record, and spent hours schooling his team on its fast greens and treacherous bunkers.
It paid dividends with the Internationals in front after the opening day for the first time since 2005.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but this is an unbelievable start. We haven’t had a start like this for many years,” said an elated Els, adding that he never envisioned having a 4-1 advantage.
“It’s really nice to have some points on the board. There were a lot of tight matches and a lot of crucial putts, and great golf shots,” he added.
Superstar Woods and world number four Justin Thomas put the first point on the board for the US with a four and three victory over Australian Marc Leishman and Chilean newcomer Joaquin Niemann, with the 43-year-old sinking the winning putt.
But that was as good as it got on a blustery day that began in overcast conditions and light drizzle before the sun burst through.
“This is a long four days. I mean, we have to go earn this Cup,” said a defiant Woods.
“Just because we lost the session doesn’t mean the Cup’s over. There’s a long way to go. A lot of points available. The guys will regroup and we’ll come out tomorrow ready to go.”
Bad boy Patrick Reed was heckled on the first tee by a boisterous Australian crowd who loudly jeered the controversial American after he became embroiled in a cheating row earlier in the week.
Undeterred, Reed and partner Webb Simpson dug in and levelled a tense tie on the 16th against Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and Taiwan newcomer CT Pan.
But it was not enough with the Japanese star landing a big birdie putt on the 17th to steer them to victory. South Korea’s PGA Tour rookie of the year Im Sung-jae enjoyed a stellar start to his first Presidents Cup, chipping in for an eagle at the first to put him and Canadian partner Adam Hadwin one up.
Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele levelled on the sixth and a tight affair tipped the Internationals way when Hadwin drilled a tough par putt on the 16th for the lead they never relinquished.
Australia’s Adam Scott, who like Woods is in his ninth Presidents Cup, and South Korean teammate An Byeong-hun beat Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau two and one and were never threatened after snatching the lead at the third.
The biggest upset saw Mexico’s Abraham Ancer and South African Louis Oosthuizen convincingly outgun US Open champion Gary Woodland and former world number one Dustin Johnson four and three.
Woods was in the first group out and was greeted by a small but noisy group of supporters, including one wearing a tiger suit.
A beaming Woods, the first player-captain since Hale Irwin at the inaugural event in 1994, sunk back-to-back birdies to go two up early against Leishman and Niemann.
A vintage chip-in for birdie on the fifth to huge roars put them three-up. They were pegged back to one up by the seventh as the young Chilean rookie Niemann ran hot with the putter.
But a classy Woods birdie on the 15th sealed the victory to stretch the 15-time major winner’s record to 25 wins, 15 losses and one half at the Presidents Cup, second only to Phil Mickelson’s 26 wins.
“It’s no coincidence why we won,” said Thomas. “He (Woods) really carried me out there.”
With 30 points at stake over the week, the first to 15.5 will secure the cup.