DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Everyone said that the International side needed to be more competitive to make the Presidents Cup a real rivalry.
It took an 82-minute rain delay and a huge comeback, but that’s precisely what happened.
The U.S. put on an early show Thursday at Muirfield Village and then barely held on for a 3½-2½ lead on a day of dramatic momentum swings, scratch-your-head moments and laugh-out-loud visuals.
“Obviously, we were happy to get back to 2½,” International captain Nick Price said. “It would have been nice to be at 3-each, but compared to where we were on the front nine we made a great effort coming back.”
Awkward celebratory hand slaps, big performances by the two youngest players, fright wigs and a pet squirrel all played a role in a day of craziness that might just go a long way toward enhancing the event in the public consciousness.
The U.S. charged out of the gate to lead in all six matches early. Officials put red on the leaderboard when the Americans lead and blue when the International side — everyone in the world except for Europe — is on top. In the first two hours of four-ball or better-ball, it looked like someone had splashed a couple of buckets of scarlet paint on the numbers.
Lead-off hitters Hunter Mahan and Brandt Snedeker were 3-up through six holes on Jason Day — an Aussie who is a member of Muirfield and lives maybe 15 miles away — and partner Graham DeLaet.
Tiger Woods/Matt Kuchar, Bill Haas/Webb Simpson and Zach Johnson/Jason Dufner never trailed on the front side and appeared ready to all but lock up the Cup for the fifth straight time.
“We couldn’t do anything wrong,” said Fred Couples, who has played in four of these and won twice more as the U.S. captain. “There were so many birdies made, you really couldn’t keep up.”
Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel tried to lighten things up for the International side by showing up on the first tee wearing shoulder-length wigs. Earlier in the week, they had taken advantage of a barber who visited the team room — and sheared away most of their hair.
Even their attempt at easing the tension didn’t turn the tide.
Woods, the world’s top-ranked player, seemed at ease with Kuchar, who won the Memorial Tournament last June at Muirfield. After each good shot or big putt, they would slap hands with a waist-high move, then pull their hands back and look away. Although they looked like they were more likely to hurt each other than to start a new way of high-fiving, they continued to put up birdies in what became an easy 5-and-4 rout of Angel Cabrera and Marc Leishman.
But just when it appeared that the Internationals were getting a head start on falling to 1-8-1 in the biennial competition, the rains came. A powerful storm hit the course Jack Nicklaus built, causing an 82-minute suspension of play.
When the players returned, the Americans cooled off and things got interesting.
The International Hair Club for Men, Oosthuizen and Schwartzel, won three times in a four-hole span to transform a 2-down deficit into a lead. Then they traded clutch shots on the way to a 2-and-1 win over Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley.
Day and DeLaet never led from the second to the 15th hole, but then DeLaet, a wide-eyed Canadian who lives in Boise, Idaho, nearly jarred his shot into the par-3 16th. He tapped in from 18 inches and suddenly the Internationals led. They ended up winning on the final hole when Day marked himself as definite threat in next year’s club championship when he hit his approach to 20 feet and then curled in the 20-foot birdie putt for the win.
“Being a member here definitely helps when the tournament comes around,” Day said.
Johnson and Dufner never took their collective foot off the gas and won 5-and-3 over Branden Grace and Richard Sterne.
In a shrewd move, Couples paired 20-year-old Jordan Spieth — he didn’t have a card to play at any professional level a year ago but then wowed the PGA Tour with a win and seven other top-10 finishes — with dependable, 46-year-old Steve Stricker.
Stricker saved the shaky Spieth early by hitting three clutch birdie putts, but Spieth rewarded Stricker and Couples by hitting several big shots in a 1-up win over Ernie Els and Brendon de Jonge. Stricker salvaged par from a greenside bunker at the 18th to lock up the point.
American captain’s assistant Davis Love III cruised the course in his electric cart, the matches winding down while the U.S. side’s unofficial mascot — named Sammy by Stricker’s wife — quietly nestled in his lap watching the action.
With the score tied at 2½-2½ and only one match remaining, all 25,000 or 35,000 people on the course crowded around the ropes at 18. Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama had never led against Dufner and Johnson, but had hit enough quality shots — like Scott holing out a difficult wedge from high rough for eagle at 15 — to come to the final hole needing to win to prevent the U.S. from taking the whole point.
Matsuyama, a 21-year-old from Japan who had never played in an international team competition, hit his drive in the middle of the fairway and then hit a pure, 161-yard iron that almost rolled in for eagle. Instead, his 2-foot birdie putt kept the International side within a point heading into Friday’s alternate-shot round.
“What we showed today is that there’s plenty of heart on this team,” Scott said. “3½ to 2½ isn’t a big deal.”
Both sides and almost all of the players walked away relatively pleased with the way things went.
“Words can’t describe how much fun it was today,” Spieth said.
He wasn’t just speaking for himself.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP