But it took a great save from a plugged lie in the bunker by Steve Stricker in the final match on the course to give the U.S. a 3½-2½ lead. The U.S. leads the overall series 7-1-1.
And despite being in another hole, this only felt like a divot to an International team inspired by the clutch play of Hideki Matsuyama, the South African duo of Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, and the refusal to be spooked from trailing early in every match.
“There’s plenty of heart on the team,” Adam Scott said. “And think we should take a lot of that.”
Ernie Els didn’t make a birdie until the 17th hole, but his 12-footer extended the match to the 18th hole. The Internationals looked like they might win the last hole with a par when 20-year-old Jordan Spieth drove into the water and Stricker’s approach plugged into the face of the bunker. He blasted out to 3 feet, and Brendon de Jonge missed his 18-foot birdie putt to end a wild day.
“You don’t want anybody else to have to get that up-and-down other than Steve Stricker, so, God, what a match,” Spieth said. “It was incredible.”
That wasn’t the only highlight.
Scott chipped in for eagle on the 15th hole and Matsuyama holed a 10-foot birdie putt on the next hole to square their match against Bill Haas and Webb Simpson. Haas answered with an 18-foot birdie putt to go 1 up, only for the 21-year-old Japanese star to hit his 8-iron approach from 168 yards to 2 feet for birdie on the 18th to halve the match.
Oosthuizen and Schwartzel gave Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson their first loss. The South Africans, best of friends since junior golf, took their first lead on the 11th hole and didn’t lose another hole until they had a 2-and-1 win.
Mickelson and Bradley were 3-0 as partners in the Ryder Cup last year and had a 2-up lead through seven holes on Bradley’s eagle. They didn’t win another hole the rest of the way, however.
“I had good rhythm early on and when we went back out (after the delay), I was just a little bit tight and didn’t make very good swings,” Mickelson said.
The Presidents Cup began with fourballs for the first time since 1996, which should have favored the Internationals. Instead, the Americans won their first fourballs session in 10 years, dating to the second day in South Africa.
Still, this was a moral victory for the International team.
“At the break, I just spoke to most of the guys and said, ‘Hey, the U.S. has had everything go their way the front nine, and just be patient,’” captain Nick Price said. “And what a comeback they made.”
Muirfield Village was set up for birdies, and there were plenty of them. Ten of the 12 teams were at least 8-under par in their rounds.
The exceptions were Angel Cabrera and Marc Leishman, who were only 3 under in the shortest match of the day. They lost, 5 and 4, to Woods and Matt Kuchar. The Americans used a handshake from “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and they used it a lot.
“That was definitely all me,” Kuchar said. “That stems from ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ I figured this guy was the perfect Carlton.”
Woods turned out to be a decent partner, too. Kuchar was his 19th partner in the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup, and it was a solid debut. Kuchar won at Muirfield Village in June, while Woods is a five-time Memorial champion.
“We both have the low stroke averages in this tournament’s history,” Woods said. “Put us together and we feel very comfortable how to play this golf course.”
Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson in the anchor match were 3 up through three holes and never looked back. Branden Grace and Richard Sterne, the only all-rookie team for the International side, were 2 down after 10 and never got any closer. The match ended on the 15th hole.
The critical part could be Friday with six foursomes matches.
The Americans have won the last four times outright, and they have a 31-13 advantage in the more difficult alternate-shot format. Price kept his teams together, while Couples kept four of his six teams intact.
“I’m not going to lose faith in those teams, to be honest,” Price said. “I really think that they’re all ready to take their games to the next level.”