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Ernie Els’ young International team got off to dream Presidents Cup start as they stunned Tiger Woods’ star-studded the United States to take a 4-1 lead after the opening fourballs Thursday.
The Americans were heavy favourites ahead of the matchplay event at Royal Melbourne, having won all but one of the 12 editions of the biennial clash, with one drawn.
But Els boasts intimate knowledge of the difficult sandbelt layout where he holds the course record and spent hours schooling his team on its fast greens and treacherous bunkers.
It paid dividends with the Internationals in front after the opening day for the first time since 2005.
Superstar Tiger Woods and world number four Justin Thomas put the first point on the board for the US with a 4 and 3 victory over Australian Marc Leishman and Chilean newcomer Joaquin Niemann, with the 43-year-old sinking the winning putt.
But that was as good as it got on a blustery day that began in overcast conditions and light drizzle before the sun burst through.
Bad boy Patrick Reed was heckled on the first tee by a boisterous Australian crowd who loudly jeered the controversial American after he became embroiled in a cheating row earlier in the week. They then cheered as Reed’s opening drive found a bunker.
South Korea’s PGA Tour rookie of the year Im Sung-jae enjoyed a stellar start to his first Presidents Cup, chipping in for an eagle at the first in match two to put him and Canadian partner Adam Hadwin one up.
They held onto the advantage against Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele until the American pair levelled on the sixth. It became a tense affair before Hadwin drilled a tough par putt on the 16th to give them the lead and ultimately a 1 up win.
Third pairing Adam Scott, who like Woods is in his ninth Presidents Cup, and South Korean teammate An Byeong-hun beat Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau 2 and 1 and were never threatened after snatching the lead at the third.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and Taiwan newcomer CT Pan scored a tense 1 up win over Webb Simpson and Reed, who came in for some barracking by the crowd after being penalised for improving his lie in the Bahamas last week.
Reed levelled the tie on the 16th with a cry of “come on” after his bridie putt dropped but Matsuyama landed a big birdie putt on the 17th and the pair secured the point when Reed missed a long birdie try on the last.
Perhaps the biggest upset came courtesy of Mexico’s Abraham Ancer and South African Louis Oosthuizen, who convincingly outgunned US Open champion Gary Woodland and former world number one Dustin Johnson 4 and 3.
Woods was in the first group out and was greeted by a small but noisy group of supporters, including one wearing a tiger suit.
A beaming Woods, the first playing-captain since Hale Irwin at the inaugural event in 1994, sunk back-to-back birdies to give him and Thomas an early 2-0 lead over Leishman and Niemann.
He then wound back the clock with a vintage chip-in for birdie on the fifth to huge roars.
It put the pair three-up, before Leishman and Niemann found their range to peg it back to one down by the seventh, with the Chilean young gun running hot with the putter.
But a classy Woods and Thomas turned the screws again by winning another two holes before Woods’ birdie on the 15th handed them victory.
It stretched the 15-time major winner’s record to 25 wins, 15 losses and one half in matches at the Presidents Cup, second only to Phil Mickelson’s 26 wins. While he led from the front, his teammates let him down.
That included Woodland and Johnson, whose movement appeared untroubled in his first event since knee surgery in September, leaving them with work to do in the five foursome matches on Friday.
With 30 points at stake over the week, the first to 15 1/2 will secure the cup.