- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

LAKE MANASSAS, Va. — Gary Player’s International squad celebrated a visitor’s first at the Presidents Cup yesterday, claiming the opening foursomes 3½-2½ to become the only team in the history of the event to exit Day 1 with a lead on foreign soil.

“It was a good strong start and a great day of matches,” said the effusive Player, who turns 70 next month but belies his age with his bottomless well of passion and enthusiasm. “Being up one point is irrelevant. It’s like a mile race, and you’re out in 50 yards ahead, but there’s such a long way to go. One point is absolutely nothing.”

Undoubtedly, Player would like his team to think as much, lest it arrives self-satisfied for today’s first session of four-balls. But it would be imprudent to dismiss the strong start from the visitors. In three previous trips to Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, the International squad has crawled off the property after opening-day play having practically gifted the Cup to the home team.

In each of three previous forays to RTJ, all losses, the Internationals interred themselves by spotting the Americans five-point first-day leads from which recovery was virtually impossible.

This go-round at RTJ felt different from the start. The International power pairing of world Nos. 5 and 7 Retief Goosen and Adam Scott led the foreign charge onto the 7,335-yard, par-72 layout by blistering the marquee U.S. pairing of Tiger Woods and Fred Couples 4 and 3.

“Four great players started out the match — three of them played, and I just didn’t,” said Couples, who struggled throughout the bag but particularly with his putter, a bumbling Watson to Tiger’s Holmes. “I put Tiger in some real tough spots.”

The match was basically decided during a five-hole stretch from Nos. 6 to 10. With the Internationals already 1-up, Couples shoved a 3-footer for birdie and a halve at the par-5 6th to push them 2-down. The U.S. duo fell 3-down at the 7th when Goosen laced a 5-iron on the 200-yard par-3 to six feet and Scott converted his partner’s brilliance into a birdie. But a sloppy double bogey from the Internationals on No. 9 erased that salvo. And when Couples coasted home a 30-footer for birdie at the par-5 10th, it looked like a momentum shift and a turnaround was in the offing.

But Goosen, the two-time U.S. Open champion (2001 and 2004), topped Couples’ from 15 feet at the 10th, earning a rally-crushing halve that left the U.S. tandem grimacing in resignation.

“We didn’t win it there, but that had a big impact on the match,” Scott said afterward. “It was the only time were I felt like the momentum could go in their favor. Retief rolls it in right on top, heads off to the next tee, and everything’s normal.”

There was actually little about the day that could be described as normal. U.S. team staple Jim Furyk aggravated a rib muscle on his first swing of the day but still gutted out a halve of Vijay Singh and Mark Hensby with local favorite Fred Funk. Furyk carried the pair between visits from the PGA Tour’s physiotherapist, who walked the last 13 holes with Furyk, routinely kneading and massaging the 2003 U.S. Open champion’s ribs between shots.

Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco, the pairing U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus felt was the most mismatched of his bunch, posted a 1-up victory over Nick O’Hern and Tim Clark to break a shocking streak of team-play failures for Mickelson.

The Dallas duo of Justin Leonard and Scott Verplank, perhaps the United States’ most nondescript pairing, played the best golf of the squad, crushing Australians Peter Lonard and Stuart Appleby 4 and 2.

And U.S. veterans Davis Love III and Kenny Perry, whom Nicklaus fancied as his second strongest pair, fell to Internationals Michael Campbell and Angel Cabrera (2 and 1) in a match that never felt that close.

But the stunner of the day belonged to the International combo of Mike Weir and Trevor Immelman. They arrived at RTJ as two of the biggest question marks on Player’s squad but left last night after posting the dominating performance of the day. The struggling Canadian and South African rookie wild-card pick dismantled David Toms and Stewart Cink 6 and 5, finishing their 13 holes of alternate shot play an eye-popping 6-under par.

“Even the guys who were playing the best on our team would have had a tough time keeping up with them,” Toms said. “They birdied four of the first five and never looked back.”

Today’s four-balls offer the United States an opportunity to surge back in a format that has traditionally treated them better than their International and European counterparts. And if Furyk’s ribs don’t allow him to go today, the contingency plan of Woods bringing up the rear in a singles match vs. Appleby could spark the property to a partisan frenzy capable of driving just such a U.S. charge.

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