Tiger Woods sat in a cart with a tiny squirrel resting on his shoulder. Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel walked onto the first tee wearing wigs to make up for their bad haircuts. Fred Couples had cupcakes delivered to him by the opposing captain in honor of his 54th birthday.
Opening day at the Presidents Cup was unlike any other Thursday at Muirfield Village.
Except for the score.
After six hours of fourballs that produced 102 birdies, two eagles and a mascot named ”Sammy the Squirrel,” the Americans won the opening session for the fourth straight Presidents Cup, a solid start in their quest to maintain dominance in this event.
But it took a great save from a plugged lie in the bunker by Steve Stricker in the final match on the course to give the Americans a 3 1/2-2 1/2 lead. And despite being in another hole, this only felt like a divot to an International team inspired by the clutch play of Hideki Matsuyama, the South African duo of Oosthuizen and Schwartzel, and the refusal to be spooked from trailing early in every match.
”There’s plenty of heart on the team,” Adam Scott said.
Ernie Els didn’t make a birdie until the 17th hole, but his 12-footer extended the match to the 18th hole. The Internationals looked like they might win the last hole with a par when 20-year-old Jordan Spieth drove into the water and Stricker’s approach plugged into the face of the bunker. He blasted out to 3 feet, and de Jonge missed his 18-foot birdie putt to end a wild day.
”You don’t want anybody else to have to get that up-and-down other than Steve Stricker, so, God, what a match,” Spieth said. ”It was incredible.”
That wasn’t the only highlight.
Scott chipped in for eagle on the 15th hole and Matsuyama holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the next hole to square their match against Bill Haas and Webb Simpson. Haas answered with an 18-foot birdie putt to go 1 up, only for the 21-year-old Japanese star to hit his 8-iron approach from 168 yards to 2 feet for birdie on the 18th to halve the match.
As for that squirrel?
Love found it on the second hole and kept it with him for good luck the rest of the way. It was on his wrist, in his pocket, and quickly became the team mascot. At one point, Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn put it on Woods’ back. It spooked her boyfriend, who at first looked bothered, but later became friends with Sammy.
”I carry a rabbit’s foot around a lot. I don’t know much about a squirrel, or a live squirrel,” Couples said.
The International team had its own mascot – Mother Nature.
The Americans bolted to a big start and were ahead in all six matches early. The round was stopped for 1 1/2 hours because of thunderstorms, and while none of the matches had gone beyond the 10th hole, it felt like a chance for the Internationals to start over.
”The break did us really good,” Oosthuizen said. ”We came back out, felt refreshed and just played well.”
Jason Day and Graham DeLaet rallied from 3 down to Hunter Mahan and Brandt Snedeker, winning on the 18th hole when Day made a 20-foot birdie putt.
Oosthuizen and Schwartzel gave Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson their first loss. The South Africans, best of friends since junior golf, took their first lead on the 11th hole and didn’t lose another hole until they had a 2-and-1 win. Mickelson and Bradley were 3-0 as partners in the Ryder Cup last year and had a 2-up lead through seven holes on Bradley’s eagle. But they didn’t win another hole the rest of the way.
The Presidents Cup began with fourballs for the first time since 1996, which should have favored the Internationals. Instead, the Americans won their first fourballs session in 10 years.
Still, this was a moral victory for the International team.
”At the break, I just spoke to most of the guys and said, `Hey, the U.S. has had everything go their way the front nine, and just be patient,”’ captain Nick Price said. ”And what a comeback they made.”
Muirfield Village was set up for birdies, and there were plenty of them. Ten of the 12 teams were at least 8-under par in their rounds.
The exceptions were Angel Cabrera and Marc Leishman, who were only 3 under in the shortest match of the day. They lost, 5 and 4, to Woods and Matt Kuchar.
Kuchar was Woods’ 19th partner in the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup, and it was a solid debut. Kuchar won at Muirfield Village in June, while Woods is a five-time Memorial champion.
”We both have the low stroke averages in this tournament’s history,” Woods said. ”Put us together and we feel very comfortable how to play this golf course.”
Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson in the anchor match were 3 up through three holes and never looked back. Branden Grace and Richard Sterne, the only all-rookie team for the International side, were 2 down after 10 and never got any closer. The match ended on the 15th hole.
The critical part could be Friday with six foursomes matches.
The Americans have won the last four times outright, and they have a 31-13 advantage in the more difficult alternate-shot format. Price kept his teams together, while Couples kept four of his six teams intact.
”I’m not going to lose faith in those teams, to be honest,” Price said. ”I really think that they’re all ready to take their games to the next level.”