CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The heavy favorites came to play early, but the underdogs didn’t leave without a fight.
What began as an anticlimactic rout — Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele ended their round up six with five holes to go — turned into a nail-biter that might be consequential later in the week.
The heavily favored Americans won four matches and lost one, ultimately escaping Quail Hollow Club on Thursday with a 4-1 lead over the International side heading into Friday.
“Going out first, there’s a real advantage to trying to get red up on the board as early as possible,” Cantlay told reporters after his round. “I think it just gets everyone a little more comfortable and inspires them to just follow suit.”
One of the biggest storylines leading into this year’s Presidents Cup was the supposition that the event could be one-sided. The U.S. team has won 11 of the 13 iterations of the tournament and hasn’t lost since 1998. Not only that: The LIV Tour has rendered many of the international side’s potential stars, including third-ranked Cameron Scott and 33rd-ranked Louis Oosthuizen, ineligible — tipping the scales even further in America’s favor.
But the International side, after a sluggish start, made a valiant comeback.
And made Thursday chock-full of big moments.
The biggest shot of the day for the U.S., perhaps, came on hole 15. To save par, Justin Thomas carefully nudged a long putt from the fringe. When it fell into the cup, he fist-pumped to a roaring crowd and slapped Jordan Spieth’s hand and shouted, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” The International team missed the ensuing putt and had to settle for bogey — and that gave the Spieth-Thomas pair a two-stroke lead and a momentum it wouldn’t relinquish.
Another big moment came on hole 10, a par three, for the American squad. Collin Morikawa slipped a 6-iron out of his bag and rocketed a shot off the tee about five feet away from the hole. (“Not a bad 6,” Morikawa told his caddie, trying to suppress a big smile.)
That good shot didn’t lead to a birdie or any change in margin, after Morikawa’s partner, Wake Forest grad Cameron Young, missed the ensuing putt. But it was a highlight from a solid day from Morikawa — and Young eventually got his partner back, which included a beautiful approach from the rough to help hold par and the lead on 15, as well as a match-sealing putt on 17.
“Having Collin as a partner definitely takes some pressure off me because I feel like especially if I can just get it in the fairway, I’m going to have an eight- or 10-footer for birdie,” Young said. “But, yeah, I mean, it was everything I could have asked for and really a ton of fun to be out there with these guys and kind of watch the other matches go.”
The last two matches were the most competitive: In match four, Sam Burns and Scottie Scheffler of the U.S. were up two entering the 15th hole, but the Si Woo Kim-Cam Davis pairing roared back, winning three straight holes on 15-16-17 to take the lead and not give it back.
“To be honest, we both played really well all day,” Davis told reporters after his round. “I think it took us a little while to get the speed of the greens, and, you know, obviously, one shot in the water there actually kind of sparked a little bit more fire in me. I wasn’t going to keep playing with a little bit of a scared mentality or a little nervousness. I was going to start really going for it.”
Said team captain Trevor Immelman on Kim and Davis’ win: “For them to finish strong like that to eke out a point for us really is big psychologically. If we got white washed today, it would have been a tough pill to swallow. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but like I said, we’ll keep going, man. We’ll keep going until they ring the bell.”
And in match five, the Tony Finau-Max Homa pair led virtually all match before Taylor Pendrith and Mito Pereira tied it up with a birdie on 13. The match remained level until the final hole, when the U.S. pair won the hole with a par.
Homa told reporters after his round that the 15 hole was a roller coaster of emotions — and a huge momentum boost the rest of the way. The ride started with Homa hitting a shot off some rocks off the fairway, only for Finau to hit a remarkable approach that set up Homa 10 feet from the hole. (The Americans parred the hole, somehow keeping the score level and in position to take the win.)
“I can’t explain how hard Tony’s shot was,” Homa said. “He had a poor lie, and there was very little real estate for him to land it where it would stay on the green even. He hit an unreal shot. I was prepared to chip or maybe hit a bunker shot next. He somehow gave me ten feet, and I fortunately made it.
“That was a huge reversal. That tie felt like a win, walking to the next tee. That was a huge boost for us at that point.”
Despite the result, Immelman reiterated that the messaging to his team tonight “is the same.”
“The message is play free,” the South African captain said. “Nobody here expects us to win. We’ve got to have that belief deep down. Go out there and fight. We’re up against maybe the strongest American team ever assembled on paper.
“So, you know, we do what we do. We run our system. We get ready and prepare, and we play as hard as we can.”
Results from Quail Hollow
— Group 1: Patrick Cantlay-Xander Schauffele defeat Adam Scott-Hideki Matsuyama (6 up with 5 holes to go)
— Group 2: Jordan Spieth-Justin Thomas defeat Sungjae Im-Corey Conners (2 up with 1 hole to go)
— Group 3: Cameron Young-Collin Morikawa defeat Tom Kim-KH Lee (2 up with 1 hole to go)
— Group 4: Si Woo Kim-Cam Davis defeat Scottie Scheffler-Sam Burns (2 up)
— Group 5: Tony Finau-Max Homa defeat Taylor Pendrith-Mito Pereira (1 up)
©2022 The Charlotte Observer. Visit at charlotteobserver.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.