JERSEY CITY — The U.S. golfers, appearing as dominant as the basketball Dream Team, were so far ahead of the competition that they nearly disproved that classic American saying, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” They almost won the Presidents Cup a full day early.
As it is, they need only one point from among the 12 Sunday singles matches at Liberty National to beat the International side and clinch the trophy. They lead 14 ½-3 ½ in a week that has produced about as much suspense as your average Harlem Globetrotters game.
Only a late rally Saturday by Si Woo Kim and Anirban Lahiri turned a deficit into a 1-up win over Kevin Chappell and Charley Hoffman, preventing the U.S. from reaching the 15 ½ points required to win the Cup. Otherwise, not one of the singles matches — normally the most dramatic phase of international team play — would have mattered at all.
Chappell, who showed sportsmanship in conceding a three-foot putt to Lahiri on the final hole Saturday, ensuring the Internationals’ first full point since Thursday, will have the first crack at clinching. He was chosen by captain Steve Stricker to play the opening match against Marc Leishman. Hoffman will go second, against Jason Day. All 12 matches will be played to completion, even though it is pretty clear how it will turn out.
International team captain Nick Price said jokingly to Stricker at their news conference: “Tell your boys not to panic.” He and most others knew going in that the U.S. was heavily favored, but no one predicted that the match might be decided on Saturday.
“We’ve come up against a juggernaut of the U.S. team,” Price said.
In an odd way, Lahiri and Kim faced pressure Saturday. They trailed by one after 14 holes and saw that the International team had lost or was losing the other matches. Their team did not want the embarrassment of such an early decision to the four-day contest. “I guess in the back of our minds it was there, but trust me, neither of us was thinking about it coming down the stretch,” said Lahiri, a resident of India who plays on the PGA Tour. He has played poorly all week, but made crucial birdie putts on 16 and 17.
Aside from that, Saturday was all American. In the morning alternate-shot session, Phil Mickelson teamed with Kevin Kisner for a 2 and 1 win over Jhonattan Vegas and Emiliano Grillo. It was Mickelson’s record 25th victory in Presidents Cup competition. He didn’t play the afternoon best-ball session and spent time with teammate Rickie Fowler taking selfies with U.S. fans.
Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed won matches in the morning and afternoon, extending their all-time record as partners in international play to 11-1. Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger, trailing against Hideki Matsuyama and Vegas almost all the way through the afternoon match, had a strong back nine for a 3 and 2 win.
Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, close friends and workout partners and winners of the past two U.S. Opens, never trailed in the afternoon’s penultimate match and beat Branden Grace and Leishman, 3 and 2. “We’re all close and we’re all good friends and we’re all really good players, so we do have a lot of trust in each other,” Johnson said. “Honestly, we’re all playing really good right now.”
Nothing could stop the way the Americans were rolling, not even an unusual ruling that penalized Spieth for stopping Louis Oosthuizen’s putt from rolling too far past the hole on No. 12. Although he said he was only trying to be polite because Oosthuizen was out of the hole, the American was forced to concede the hole for interfering with a ball in motion. He said later it got him fired up.
Not that any of the Americans needed extra motivation. “What’s really cool for us is not the dominance of the week,” Spieth said. “It’s the way this team has really come together, and we recognize that this is a very similar team to what we can see for the next, you know, five to 20 years, potentially.”
In other words, in terms of domination, it ain’t over.