At the end of an exciting week on a golf course that was a wonderful stage for the 13th Presidents Cup, International captain Ernie Els summed up the outcome gracefully and succinctly as he addressed United States playing captain Tiger Woods during the closing ceremonies at Royal Melbourne Golf Club.
“We gave you everything we had,” Els said. “You were the better team.”
For three of the four days of competition in the sandbelt outside Australia’s second-largest city, though, it had been a different story. The underdog Internationals, seeking their first victory since defeating the Americans at Royal Melbourne in 1998, built a three-point lead after the first session, maintained that advantage after two days and still led by two points following morning and afternoon matches on day three.
The United States—10-1-1 in the biennial contest and stacked with a roster of stars—trailed 10-8 going into the concluding singles session against a young, motivated and scrappy squad that was solving the questions asked by the Alister MacKenzie gem of a design. The International side hadn’t taken a lead into the final session since 2003.
In need of a special Sunday, the U.S. delivered, winning six of the 12 matches and tying four more to secure a 16-14 victory. And it was no surprise that the Americans’ 43-year-old leader played a key role.
Woods, who paired with Justin Thomas to win a match on Thursday and Friday, put himself in the leadoff singles slot against Abraham Ancer. Woods was sharp from the outset, hitting a wedge close on the first hole to take an early lead and going on to a 3-and-2 victory, his record 27th in the Presidents Cup.
A short while later, Patrick Reed beat C.T. Pan 4 and 2, to give the Americans their first lead since the opening match on day one. It was a momentum shift that continued throughout a warm, partly sunny afternoon in front of enthusiastic galleries trying to give the home team a boost.
Only Sungjae Im and Cameron Smith won singles matches for the Internationals, Im defeating Gary Woodland 4 and 3 in a battle of Cup first-timers and Smith dispatching Thomas 2 and 1.
In a competition that at one point Friday afternoon seemed as if the Internationals were in position to break out to a 9-1 lead before crucial 18th-hole American successes, a tie—and shared Presidents Cup—seemed a likely scenario Sunday.
But when Matt Kuchar sank a five-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole against Louis Oosthuizen in Match 11, the U.S. was assured a half point and its 11th Presidents Cup victory. The final margin was realized when Rickie Fowler and Mark Leishman tied in the anchor match.
“We relied on one another as a team, and we did it—together,” Woods said. “This Cup wasn’t going to be given to us. We had to go earn it. And we did.”
Woods’ decision to sit out both Saturday sessions was a surprise to some, given how well he played the first two days. But he voiced trust in his 11 fellow players and the plan worked out as the Americans prevailed in singles.
The victory capped a memorable 15 months for Woods, who won the 2018 TOUR Championship, 2019 Masters—his first major title in 11 years—and ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP in Japan in October for his 82nd career PGA TOUR victory to tie Sam Snead’s all-time record.
Winning this Presidents Cup as playing captain made up for the 1998 defeat, with Woods the only golfer competing who had played 21 years ago when the Internationals won 20½ to 11½.
“To come here and do it in this fashion, to do it with this team in particular, it was an honor for me as a player,” Woods said, “and even more of an honor to be their captain.”
The defeat was disappointing to Internationals, but encouraging signs could be found with the next edition scheduled for Quail Hollow Club in 2021. The tight contest contrasted sharply with a one-sided U.S. victory two years ago at Liberty National. The host side was the youngest International team in history. Consider that Abraham Ancer, who went 3-1-1 and was a stalwart, arrived at Royal Melbourne with 83 PGA TOUR starts, just one more than the number Woods’ career wins.
“I followed a plan, and it didn’t quite work out, but we came damn close,” Els said. “If you compare our team on paper with other teams in other sport, you would have laughed us out of the building. But we gave it a hell of a go and we came mightily close to winning and upsetting one of the greatest golf teams of all time.”
This article first appeared in the PGA TOUR December 2019-May 2020 issue, which can be read here.