- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2007

MONTREAL — Call it a Canadian clubbing.

The United States‘ downtrodden dozen exorcised a year’s worth of K Club demons at the expense of their International counterparts yesterday, strapping a 5½-½ thrashing on Gary Player’s favored team in the opening foursomes matches of the Presidents Cup.

“We’ve seen this in the last two Ryder Cups — oh, that was the European side,” Tiger Woods joked after he dragged partner Charles Howell III to a 3 and 1 victory over K.J. Choi and Nick O’Hern as part of the U.S. rout. “This was I guess pretty reminiscent to what we did in the 2000 [Presidents Cup]. We got off to a pretty commanding start there [5-0] and basically rolled from there.”

That 2000 whitewash at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club came after Vijay Singh’s infamous decision to rile Woods by allowing his caddie to sport a “Tiger Who?” cap. Yesterday’s similar beatdown came after Singh reprised that foible with a “Phil Who?” comment Wednesday at Royal Montreal.

Vijay, his name would be Phil Mickelson. And yours, once again, would be mud.

Interestingly, yesterday’s bludgeoning in the drizzle could have been a clean sweep had Singh not been the recipient of some unwarranted generosity from U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus. Playing against Singh and native hero Mike Weir, Mickelson and 43-year-old rookie Woody Austin rallied from 3-down through 11 holes courtesy of some stunningly clutch play from the ultra-intense Austin.

Austin turned the match with a 20-foot birdie bomb on the 12th and then jarred a crucial pair of 14-foot par putts on Nos. 16 and 18 to leave the chatty Singh with just under a 4-footer for par at the last to salvage what would turn out to be the International team’s only piece of a point all day.

Such a putt isn’t good in any game on any golf course on the globe, much less when Singh is standing over it. The 44-year-old Fijian packs a belly putter for a reason: a career of dicey strokes from just such distances. Singh also deserved to stand over just such a putt on the 18th hole of the day’s best match. He deserved to sweat out four feet for a sister-kissing halve after his snarky comments Wednesday, particularly when fate obliged with such a potentially delicious bit of instant justice.

Singh deserved to flirt with humiliation just as he deserved to lose to creaky Fred Couples at the 2005 Presidents Cup after only half-jokingly telling those gathered on the first tee that Sunday to send a cart out to collect Couples “around the 12th hole or so.”

But pulling a page from his epic tome of history, Nicklaus recalled the positive vibes generated by his famed concession to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup and called off his bulldogs.

“Captain Nicklaus said for us to do it. And if he says something, we just do it,” said Mickelson, who undoubtedly wasn’t as excited about commuting Singh’s potential karmic sentence. “With me, I don’t know. When you’re in the match, you don’t think about it. But Captain Nicklaus said it was the right thing to do.”

Of course, if yesterday’s play was any indication, the one-point swing won’t mean much by the time the U.S. squad pulls its spikes out of the trampled International bunch after Sunday’s singles. The United States still has to reverse its Ryder Cup woes in coming years. But if they follow through on yesterday’s dominating start to capture the first U.S. victory on foreign soil in international team competition since the 1993 Ryder Cup, they will have to be given their due.

Though there are still 28 points left on the board at Royal Montreal, the United States already has taken the first major step toward erasing the long-held perception that it is a softer team than its International and European counterparts. Yesterday, the weather was extremely unpleasant (drizzling with temperatures in the 50s). The Canadian crowd was boisterously and fittingly bipartisan. And the Americans’ opponents were superior on paper even to the superb European bunch who crushed them last year in Ireland.

And yet yesterday it was the U.S. players who were clearly tougher, perhaps mentally more than physically, than their International counterparts. They earned 3.5 points among the four matches that reached the 18th hole, always a sign of which team is coping better with the pressure. And the team’s somewhat unheralded pairing of Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan recorded the most thorough blasting of the day (3 and 2) over the International pairing (Geoff Ogilvy and Adam Scott) in which Player had such confidence that he chose them to lead out his team.

Only time will tell whether the Americans are finally ready to move beyond the soft, underachieving era of team golf defined by the soft, underachieving likes of players like Couples and Love. But yesterday’s rout in the rain was certainly a pleasantly surprising step in the right direction.

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