MONTREAL – So this is why we love match play so much.
In the small newspaper type this morning, it will look like a rout took place Thursday in the opening day matches at Royal Montreal, the loosey-goosey U.S. squad sprinting out to a 5 1/2 to 1/2 lead after one foursomes session.
But inside the day, inside the ropes, was some terrific competition. Some quick turnarounds. Sudden swings in momentum. Some crazy stuff. Four matches that hung on to the 18th green.
The one match that failed to produce a winner either way – Phil Mickelson and Woody Austin against Vijay Singh and homegrown Mike Weir – was undoubtedly the zaniest. The U.S. won six holes on the day, the Internationals won six, and six were halved – including the last, which ended when Jack
Nicklaus strongly suggested to his U.S. troops that they concede the 3 1/2-foot tiddler Vijay Singh was looking at with the match on the line.
“Captain Nicklaus said for us to do it, and when he says something, we just do it,” Mickelson said.
Said Nicklaus later, “Was there a suggestion there? Yes. But I wanted them to do it. I said, ‘Hey guys, think about what you’re doing.’ It was certainly their call.”
It was, Nicklaus said, in the proper spirit of the matches. On the other side of Mickelson and Austin, a Presidents Cup rookie who was nails tough down the stretch, stood the graceful Weir, the reason why these matches are here in Canada in the first place.
Right call under the circumstances? You bet.
On a rainy, steely day that would make the Auld Grey Toon proud, there was plenty of spirit in the offing. Mickelson and Austin battled back from a 3-down deficit, as had Ernie Els and Angel Cabrera of the International team, who would have pulled out a half-point against David Toms-Jim Furyk had Els not pulled a 4-foot par putt at the final hole.
After Cabrera had lagged his opening putt to 4 feet, Mickelson, watching from the side of the green within earshot of his captain, playfully told Nicklaus, “Don’t think about it.” The two had a hearty laugh.
It’s a rare sight these days to see a U.S. team making the quick jump to the forefront in international match play, as opposed to staring blankly at one another after climbing into yet another early Ryder Cup deficit.
Shoot, by the time the Americans’ top gun, Tiger Woods, teed off in the anchor spot, the U.S. already was up in a couple of the matches. Makes a big difference. Woods considered it “huge.”
“It’s all about momentum,” said Woods, “and it doesn’t take much.”
Take the Mickelson-Austin match, for example. The two got out to an early lead as Weir worked his way through some understandable nerves, the weight of a country sitting squarely upon him. When Weir stiffed an approach from 94 yards at the par-5 sixth, it awoke the partisan Canadian crowd.
From there, Weir and Singh went on a tear, while Mickelson and his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, spent nearly every hole configuring a way to escape and rake some bunker Austin had managed to leave Mickelson in.
“Next time, I’ll bring a little more sunscreen,” Austin joked of Mickelson’s day at the beach.
Not so funny was Austin’s play through the first nine holes. Playing in his first match play event since the U.S. Amateur some two decades ago – that’s right, two decades – the Woodman was struggling, to say the least.
“I hope I played as badly as I could play those first nine holes,” Austin said in true self-deprecating fashion. “I was pretty much puking all over myself.”
Fortunately, Mickelson took Austin under his wing, kept his spirits up, and most importantly, kept him from injuring himself with any of his clubs.
“He kept laughing and cutting me up,” said Austin. “I always tell my caddie, ‘You can say the smartest things in the world. If you don’t make me laugh, it’s not going to work. . . . Phil was awesome about that today.”
Austin knew one swing could turn his day around, and he got it on the 10th hole, when he hit a solid 5-iron to the green. Two holes later, with the U.S. side trailing 3 down, he rolled in a 18-foot downhill birdie putt at 12 to give him and Mickelson a sliver of hope. Next tee, Austin hit a laser onto the green at the 224-yard 13th. Singh missed the green weakly to the right, the Internationals made bogey, and suddenly it was a new match.
That’s just how it kept going, with fireworks on every hole. Austin stiffed an approach at 14; Singh holed a bunker shot to steal away the 15th; Austin made a huge par save at 16; Mickelson squared everything with an 18-foot birdie putt at the par-3 17th. With his ball a few feet from the hole, he started walking, and even raised his putter out like a sword – a half-Nicklaus, if you will.
“In honor of our captain, for sure,” Mickelson said, smiling.
Austin made another huge putt to save par at 18 after – you guessed it – he’d put his partner in yet another bunker. When Mickelson and Austin conceded the International’s par putt at 18 – or was it Capt. Jack? – it turned a long, hard-fought match into a wash.
A rightful result.
“I thought so,” said Mickelson. “There shouldn’t have been a winner or a loser.”
In the end, it all looked pretty one-sided, but there was some great action beyond the scores. Inside it all, the golf wasn’t always spot on – all the shots splashing into the water over the final four holes were evidence of that – but it was pure and it was hard-fought.
The kind of stuff that makes us long for the grit and volatility that match play can give us.
And it was played in great spirit. Now it’s up for the Internationals to answer, to try to climb back into this competition. Can it happen?
It’s match play. Anything can.