Couples’ Lefty-Bradley gamble pays off

Freddie Couples has never been scared of gambling.

He took risks as a player, and though they didn’t always come off, he hasn’t been disabused of the notion of rolling the dice as United States captain in the Presidents Cup.

Couples certainly gambled in sending out Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley in the first match at Muirfield Village on Friday.

The pair was off-the-boil on Thursday, squandering an early lead and ultimately having their colors lowered, 2 & 1, in their opening match by South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen.

It was the dynamic duo’s first loss together after going 3-0 at last year’s Ryder Cup in Chicago.

Bradley putted badly and Mickelson — the years perhaps starting to catch up with him at age 43 — was stiff and tight and couldn’t find his game after a mid-afternoon rain delay. He left Bradley on his own too many times on the inward nine.

“It felt horrible,” said Bradley. “We were both pretty devastated.”

Couples, however, didn’t respond by hiding them in his order until they found form. No, that’s not his style.

Instead, when Mickelson asked to go out first, he boldly agreed.

“They played well in Chicago. They like to play with each other,” Couples explained. "They have a lot of energy, and we put them out first because that’s what we want.”

They were charged with setting the tone for an American team that’s never lost a Presidents Cup on home soil, and has only lost once in nine events.

But it looked like Couples had made a bogey after Mickelson and Bradley were on the ropes early on a Friday afternoon that again was plagued by torrential rain.

Playing foursomes — or alternate shot — the Internationals team of Jason Day and Graeme DeLaet made birdie on the first hole and then stuffed an approach to within kick-in range on the second.

“The big moment I felt was the putt that Keegan made of about 15 feet for birdie on (the second hole),” said Mickelson. "They were in there tight and obviously going to go 2-Up. That putt there gave us a lot of momentum.”

The Americans, though, still weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders.

They needed three up-and-downs just to keep the margin at only one down, including an 18-footer Bradley made for par on the fourth hole.

“Those two putts (on the second and fourth) gave me more of a boost of energy watching those go in than if I had made it and that really started our streak,” said Mickelson.

“Because five is where we really got hot. We just turned it on and played some of our best golf. We shot 30 on the front nine and made a couple more birdies on the back. It was a really fun match.”

Not so much for the Internationals, who were 3-under-par playing alternate shot, but 3-Down in the match.

The turnaround, as Mickelson noted, came on the par-5 fifth.

Bradley took a hybrid and, needing to travel 250 yards just to cover the water in front of the green — and 280 yards total — stuck it to 15 feet.

Mickelson poured in the putt, prompting a wide-eyed Bradley to smack his butt in celebration.

“Reminded me of the Ryder Cup last year, just kind of getting excited and hitting a lot of great shots and feeding off each other and never allowing them to get a hole,” said Bradley.

“If they were to beat us, they were going to have to make birdie or better, and we are very difficult to beat when we do that.”

Though they made a couple of late mistakes, it didn’t really matter.

They won 4 & 3, delivering an important point for Couples, especially when a rejuvenated Ernie Els and rookie Brendon de Jonge smoked Billy Haas and Hunter Mahan 4 & 3 in the second match.

When darkness stopped play with the session still unfinished, the US was up comfortably in two of the matches — Tiger Woods and Matt Kuchar again were excellent, leading by three holes over the dangerous Schwartzel/Oosthuizen pairing — while the Internationals seemed assured of only one more point.

Couples, meanwhile, had a smile on his face.

“When they asked why (he sent Mickelson and Bradley out first), well, that was why,” he said.

“You get a guy like Phil look at you like that (asking to go first), you believe in him. You put him out first.”

Don’t expect Couples to be breaking them up.

“I feel like Keegan and I have some pretty good energy,” said Mickelson. “I think we want to keep it going.”