News & Opinion

Late-day drama keeps U.S. on script

It took approximately 27 holes, roughly seven hours of broadcast time and enduring dozens of jaw-dropping, sloppy shots by many of the best players on the planet.

But mercifully, with a couple of hours left in Golf Channel’s broadcast on Friday, the Presidents Cup finally could be classified as entertaining.

As for being competitive, well, that’s another issue altogether. As expected by anybody who has been paying attention in 2017, the matches have been the most lopsided exchange in the New York area since the Native Americans sold Manhattan for a few beads and a box of old Top Flites. 

But thanks to a pair of spectacular sand shots by Justin Thomas, a clinching birdie on the final green by Phil Mickelson and a late rally by American teammates Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, there was a modicum of electricity in the air as the U.S. team took a huge step toward improving its overall record to 10-1-1 in the lopsided biennial event.

The Internationals were badly outmanned, and following the script, dutifully played badly for most of the first two days. In fact, the quality of play was so forgettable that Golf Channel’s broadcast crew used laudable restraint to avoid building up faux enthusiasm for an event that generated more mosquito bites than goosebumps over the early hours.

With five matches of better-ball play set for Friday at Liberty National Golf Club, perched on the shores overlooking the confluence of the Hudson and East rivers, far too many players strode straight off the first tee like lemmings and into the course’s murky waters. In fact, as one observer on social media noted, it felt more like the defunct Tavistock Cup than the event it’s supposed to mirror, the Ryder Cup. Fair description.

Indeed, four players hoisted shots into the water off the first tee on Friday, while a handful of others flirted with similar disaster. The low point came when the International team of Anirban Lahiri and Charl Schwartzel fanned shots into hazards on either side of the opening fairway, on consecutive swipes.

As former world No. 1 Jason Day walked onto the tee, Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo said what everybody else was thinking: that the talented Aussie badly needed to play up to his reputation, or else. “It’s essential,” Nobilo said. “He’s got to play like when he used to be the No. 1 player in the world. He needs to take on the might of the whole team. It has to be more than just winning a point. He’s got to make a statement, put himself in front of the team, in front of the crowd.”

Day promptly pulled an iron out of the bag and carved his ball so far right, it barely stayed out of the lateral hazard. For three hours, play was uglier than the meanest street in nearby Newark and just as smelly. Lahiri, a native of India who missed a short putt two years ago to help hand the Yanks a win in South Korea, hit a snap-hook off the first tee that was graveyard dead at impact, moments after Golf Channel host Mike Tirico teed him up with this beauty: “Lahiri knows he represents so many in this opportunity on a global golf stage.” 

Oops.

As Lahiri walked to his fourth shot on the hole, Nobilo somewhat hopefully looked ahead and said, “Nothing else bad can happen now. He missed a short putt. He missed a tee shot.” Moments later, Lahiri was forced to forfeit playing the third hole for unwittingly committing a match-play rules violation from a bunker near the second green. 

World No. 3 Hideki Matsuyama played so poorly, he missed five straight fairways with his driver during a crucial back-nine stretch, letting Reed and Spieth back into a match that seemed certain to yield a full point for the Internationals. In fact, had Matsuyama hit Lady Liberty in the backside at that point, nobody would have blinked.

Spieth and Reed birdied Nos. 15 and 16 to square the match and ultimately claimed a halved point, the only positive result for the Internationals, who lost the day, 4-0-1. Spieth’s putt to win it on the 18th lipped out to keep the day from being a total Yankee whitewash.

To its credit, Golf Channel didn’t bother hyperventilating or over-selling the product. It was the correct decision, considering the second-string status of the alternate-year Ryder knockoff, but it didn’t do much to boost the event’s minimal energy levels to viewers.

The super-team pairing of Spieth and Reed, with a combined record of 6-1-3 in international team matches as a tandem, scraped it around so badly on the front nine, Spieth had more whiffs than birdies. No, really. He fanned a shot from an awkward lie near a fairway bunker and didn’t contribute a single red number until the back nine.

“Boy, we really played poorly on the front nine, and we needed something to get going and we provided it on the back,” Spieth said, somewhat tersely.

They were hardly alone. Thomas holed a bunker shot and lipped out another over the closing stretch to secure another point with teammate Rickie Fowler, and Mickelson sent most of the fans home buzzing with a needed exclamation point on the last green.

All square in his match on the 18th alongside teammate Kevin Kisner, Mickelson rolled in a 15-footer for a birdie to win the match, 1 up. A day earlier, Lefty missed a 6-footer under the same circumstances, settling for a halved point. After blowing a 3-up lead Thursday, Mickelson and Kisner rallied from behind Friday.

“It only matters how the match stands at the end of the day,” Mickelson said. “It feels incredible to finish this match like this.”

The competition is all but over, too.

The Yanks hold an 8-2 edge, the largest in event history after two sessions. But at least, after a day and a half of head-shaking performances almost across the board, the quality of play improved, which might be enough to keep some fans from watching football all weekend.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling