- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2007

MONTREAL — The second session of matches at the seventh Presidents Cup might have gone to Gary Player’s Internationals, but the day was defined by the heroics of Uncle Sam’s Aquaman.

On a day when Tiger Woods absorbed the worst match-play beating of his professional career and the home team painted the leader board blue with its brilliant play at Royal Montreal, eccentric U.S. rookie Woody Austin literally rose from the depths to almost single-handedly stem the rising International tide.

At one point midway through yesterday’s four-balls, the United States found itself down in five matches and all square in the sixth. The team’s marquee duo of Woods and Jim Furyk was in the final stages of enduring a 5 and 4 drubbing from the suddenly potent pairing of Vijay Singh and Stuart Appleby, two guys who didn’t look capable of threatening the weekend dogfight at Shank Creek during Thursday’s foursomes.

King Canuck Mike Weir had rediscovered the form he left back in 2004, carding seven birdies on his own ball during a 3 and 1 slapdown of Zach Johnson and Charles Howell to galvanize the once-subdued Canadian galleries behind the notion of a massive International rally.

Frankly, when Austin fell face-first into the lake left of the 14th green while attempting an impossible recovery from the agua, it seemed like the perfect image for a disastrous day in the making for the visitors. All the momentum and positive mojo generated by Thursday’s dominance had evaporated, and a complete reversal of Thursday’s whitewash seemed inevitable.

“Things didn’t look real good for us after Rory [Sabbatini] drove the green [at No. 14] and then David [Toms] and I both drove in the water trying to match him,” Austin said. “After I took my little bath, we were 2-down in our match with four to play, and I think we had either lost or were losing in every other match but one.”

On an obvious level, Austin’s twisting plunge into the lake was pure comedy. Every player and fan, including Austin, broke down laughing at the 43-year-old rookie’s impromptu swim.

“It could only have happened to Woody,” Furyk said afterward. “What a piece of work.”

True enough. If you had to pick one guy to a) try to play a ball six inches underwater and b) awkwardly tumble in headfirst on his follow-though, it would be the eccentric Austin, forever famous for once pounding his putter shaft into bent submission … against his head.

“I sort of turned my back. But I was really laughing, because Woody was such a great sport,” said Player, one of the more gracious players in the game’s history. “I thought, [darn], that water must be cold. But I was pleased to see his head come up.”

Austin’s playing response to yet another vintage “Woody Moment,” however, was anything but humorous. Thankfully, Austin’s rain gear kept him from getting truly soaked. And once he emerged from the lake and dried off, the laughter from the International side quickly died.

That’s because Austin, a man notorious for his poor putting, particularly under pressure, responded from his dip by posting back-to-back-to-back birdies on Royal Montreal’s closing holes to earn the most crucial halve ever earned in the event before the closing singles.

Austin, who finished the day with eight birdies on his own ball (more than any other player in attendance), lasered a 6-iron to six feet on No. 16 to bring the final U.S. team on the course back to 1-down (to Sabbatini and Trevor Immelman). Austin followed that salvo with an 8-iron to 16 feet on No. 17, draining that putt to square the match. And then concluded one of the more memorable Presidents Cup charges by negotiating the most dangerous hole on the property with a drive and a 4-iron to five feet with both entire rosters gathered around the green.

After Sabbatini salvaged at least a halve for the International side with a clutch short-range birdie of his own, Austin then topped him, prompting the pro-International Canadian crowd to break into a chant of “Woody … Woody … Woody.”

“All credit to Woody,” Sabbatini said. “He stepped up to the plate and holed those putts. It was some great golf from him at the finish.”

Neither Austin, nor his teammates, are likely to forget Austin’s dip anytime soon. U.S. skipper Jack Nicklaus labeled him Jacques Cousteau after his misadventures. And his teammates were still laughing about his unintentional baptism more than an hour later in the media center.

But if the United States ends up winning this week’s Presidents Cup, we shouldn’t forget his subsequent stretch-run birdie barrage that ended a potentially disastrous day for the Americans on a decidedly high note. Perhaps a 7-5 lead doesn’t sound much better than a 6½-5½ lead. But with a historically fragile team with mountains of Ryder Cup scar tissue on its psyche, going back to the team room on an high note is worth noting.

Both the Presidents and Ryder Cups have a way of selecting a player from the relative shadows and making him titan for a week. It has happened with Shigeki Maruyama (1998 Presidents Cup), Chris DiMarco (2005 Presidents Cup), Paul Casey (2006 Ryder Cup) and many, many more second-tier players over the years. Perhaps Austin is this week’s unlikely rising star.

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