By THE NATION
After a commanding 4-1 lead in the opening Four-Ball session on Thursday, Ernie Els’ International Team threatened to pull further ahead midway through the second day’s play with the Asian trio in strong positions in their respective matches. The International Team will enter the third day with a 6.5-3.5 lead.
The An-Matsuyama combination fought gallantly against U.S. Team playing captain Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas, exchanging leads through 12 holes. With the match tied going to the 18th hole, Thomas drained a 17-foot birdie putt to pull off a dramatic 1-up win, earning the second point with Woods this week.
Im, the 2019 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year, and partner Cameron Smith led 2-up with three to play against Rickie Fowler and Gary Woodland but the Americans brilliantly birdied 16 and 17 to tie the match and then shared the point as both teams parred the 18th hole.
Wins by Adam Scott-Louis Oosthuizen over Dustin Johnson-Matt Kuchar and Abraham Ancer-Marc Leishman over Patrick Reed-Webb Simpson ensured the International Team will take the lead for the first time into the weekend since 2005.
The 21-year-old Im was disappointed they let Fowler and Woodland off the hook. “I feel like both Cameron and I were hitting the ball really well, and he was putting great too. He made some amazing putts on the first few holes, but it's a bit unfortunate to end the way we did, but we're looking forward to tomorrow. The last few holes, we had a couple putts to win it, and captain Ernie and Cameron told me to look a little bit more but I went with my gut and it unfortunately didn't go in. But we're happy with our results.”
An and Matsuyama exchanged leads with Woods and Thomas several times throughout their match before losing to a birdie by Thomas which sparked wild celebrations from the U.S. team members around the green.
“We've got the strongest pairings on their team, so I knew it was going to be hard. They played amazing golf, and so did we I think,” said An, a Presidents Cup debutant.
“We played some good golf. We got a lot of birdies starting on, and they had some birdies starting on. I knew it was going to be tough. It's hard to get a win. You know, we're not going to be too disappointes. I know we lost but we're still leading the tournament. We're in a great spot compared to the last couple years. Our confidence is high, and this definitely is not going to let us down, that's for sure. This (lead) is massive. We know how much we wanted this, and I think we're in a great position. I know they are going to fight back tomorrow but keep our foot on the pedal and just keep making birdies and sticking to the game plan and win our matches.”
Els, captaining the International Team for the first time, was satisfied to share the five points available on Friday. “Yeah, it's perspective, isn't it? I've got to look at where we are. It's easy to just look at where we could have been, because it was looking really unbelievable. But we're in a very good position. Sometimes it bites you. Put a spear in it and bite back,” said Els.
Haotong Li, the first mainland Chinese golfer to qualify for the International Team, will see action for the first time on Saturday morning where he will team up with local hero Leishman in the opening Four-Ball session. After being rested on Friday, Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan will go out with Matsuyama where they will be looking to secure their second win together.
Els is counting on Li to deliver alongside Leishman after sitting out the first two days. “I expect him to play unbelievable golf,” said Els. “He’s been looking forward to this for two days. He’s been chomping at the bit and kicking my ass trying to get out there and I’ve been holding him back. He’s going to be like a racehorse coming out of a store,” he said.