- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

GEORGE, South Africa — Tiger Woods, Davis Love III and the rest of the Americans could not have asked for a better start yesterday in the Presidents Cup.

It was the finish that left them dazed, disappointed and facing another deficit.

“They all want to go kick themselves in the rear end,” U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus said after the International team rallied over the final three holes in the final three matches to take a 31/2-21/2 lead.

Determined not to fizzle the way they did in Australia five years ago, the Americans were poised to take a commanding lead in the opening session of alternate shot matches.

Woods and Charles Howell III needed only 15 holes to get their partnership off to a great start. Love and Kenny Perry hit spectacular shots and won easily. The United States led 2-1 and was 2 up on the back nine in the other matches.

“It could have been quite ugly,” Peter Lonard of Australia said. “Knowing we could be 5-1 down and looking down the barrel of the gun, and we can still pull it out somehow … that’s probably the most important thing.”

For the Americans, it all fell apart quickly.

First came the gutsy 6-iron from Masters champion Mike Weir, winning yet another battle of the lefties.

He and Nick Price were 1 down with two holes to play against Phil Mickelson and David Toms, the top American tandem from last year’s Ryder Cup.

“We needed something,” Weir said.

Facing the par-3 17th with bunkers and rough to the right and a 6-foot trench protecting the left — a difficult shot for left-handers — Mickelson turned away in disgust as his ball sailed well right of the green.

Weir took aim at the flag and Price walked off the tee clapping and shaking his fists. Price converted the birdie, then hit a nice chip to 5 feet that Weir finished off for birdie on the 18th and a 1-up victory.

Then came Adam Scott.

His swing reminds everyone of Woods, and so did the shots he hit on the closing holes.

The clutch birdie putt from 12 feet on No.16. The tee shot on the difficult 17th that Ernie Els converted for birdie to square the match. From the 18th fairway, Scott hit a 2-iron from 265 yards that covered the flag and left his teammates in awe.

“Only two players can hit that shot,” Els said, referring to Scott and Woods.

The ball skipped just over the green, and Els hit a nice chip that was conceded for birdie and a 1-up victory over Justin Leonard and Jim Furyk.

“Ernie told me, ‘Just stay on course,”’ Scott said. “And we finished strong.”

The final blow was Robert Allenby and Stephen Leaney, 2-down against Jay Haas and Fred Funk with three holes to play.

Facing certain defeat, Allenby holed a 15-foot birdie from the fringe to halve the hole and stay alive. Haas’ tee shot on No.17 drifted into the trench, and Funk conceded after his bold play from the gunch hit the rock wall and ricocheted over his head.

Haas hit his second shot into rough so thick on the par-5 18th that Funk couldn’t reach the green. They lost the hole with a bogey and had to settle for a halve.

“We pulled the rabbit out of the hat today,” International captain Gary Player said.

The good news for Nicklaus?

At least he knows his guys came to play.

That wasn’t the case in 1998 at Royal Melbourne, where a listless U.S. team fell behind 7-3 after the first two sessions and suffered its worst loss ever in any cup, 201/2-111/2.

This time, they played with passion and pulled off some amazing shots.

Perry holed an 80-foot putt on No.2, up a steep slope with a sharp bend to the right, for a birdie to win the hole.

Love chipped in for birdie on No.5, hit out of a hazard to salvage a par on the 12th, and chipped over a bunker and into the hole for an eagle on the 16th to close out Lonard and Tim Clark, 4 and 2.

“He hit some unbelievable short-game shots, and it was fun to watch,” Perry said.

Woods and Howell never trailed, and kept the momentum when Woods recovered from his drive into a pot bunker by stuffing his wedge into 2 feet for par to halve the hole.

Howell was a model of confidence in his first team competition, paired with the No.1 player in the world.

“Chuck is a great kid to play with, and I rode him hard today,” Woods said.

Howell didn’t buy it.

“How can you carry Tiger? Are you kidding?” he said. “We both played well.”

Ultimately, it wasn’t enough.

Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen never trailed and won, 3 and 2, against Presidents Cup rookies Jerry Kelly and Chris DiMarco.

Then, they watched the rest of their teammates show plenty of resolve and give the International team an unlikely lead.

“We had a good shot at being 5-1 today,” Nicklaus said. “That’s disappointing, but that’s also very good play on the part of Gary’s team.”

No one was better than Weir, who kept his team in the match when Price was struggling off the tee.

The most impressive shot of all might have come at No.6, when Price played an iron off the tee on the 341-yard hole and still hit into a bunker with a steep face, 61 yards from a tiny green guarded by a steep slope.

Weir hit an explosion shot with an 8-iron — a shot no one practices — that banged into the slope and stopped 12 feet away. Instead of going 3-down, Price holed the putt to cut the deficit to one.

“One of the best shots I’ve hit in a long time,” Weir said. “You’ve just got to trust your imagination.”

He and Price were 2-down on two occasions during their match, and kept clawing back.

In the end, the rest of the International team followed their lead.

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