International team slices U.S. lead
MONTREAL — Woody Austin took a plunge, then made sure the rest of the Americans didn’t sink with him.
Austin provided comic relief that instantly became part of Presidents Cup lore when he lost his balance and fell face-first into the lake along the 14th fairway. But he picked himself up, dried himself off and found redemption with three straight birdies to earn an important halve on a day the International team dominated.
The International team won four matches to cut the Americans’ lead to 7-5 after two days, and it was truly a team effort.
Vijay Singh and Stuart Appleby led the way by handing Tiger Woods his worst loss in team competition, 5 and 4, although there wasn’t much Woods and Jim Furyk could do. Singh holed out from a bunker and chipped in for eagle, Appleby made a long eagle putt at No. 12 and they combined to go 11-under through 14 holes.
Retief Goosen chipped in for par and Angel Cabrera made a 10-foot birdie on the 18th for a 1-up victory over Phil Mickelson and Hunter Mahan, the first match since 2003 in South Africa that the International team won on the 18th hole.
Geoff Ogilvy picked up another point with a 5-foot birdie on the 18th, right after Lucas Glover made a 15-foot birdie.
The cheers again belonged to Mike Weir, who made seven birdies as he and Ernie Els won on the 17th hole.
Those belonged to none other than Austin and his dive, which was shown on the large video screens across Royal Montreal, along with images of his own teammates doing everything they could to keep from laughing.
“You couldn’t see who it was because his head was underwater,” Steve Stricker said after teaming with Scott Verplank to deliver the only U.S. victory. “But you figured it had to be Woody.”
The enduring image of Austin used to be the time he walked off the green banging his putter against his head until it broke.
The highlight department just found a replacement.
“It’s funny,” Goosen said as he watched the replay from behind the 16th. “For years he was known as the guy who banged his head against his putter. And now he’s the guy who banged his head against the water.”
The Canadian gallery hounded him the rest of the match, alternating chants of “Marco” and “Polo” down the 15th hole and screaming out, “Get in the water!” when he hit a putt.
Austin got the last laugh.
Rory Sabbatini and Trevor Immelman were 2-up with three holes to play when Austin hit 6-iron into 6 feet on the tough 16th for a birdie, then holed a 15-foot birdie on the next hole to square the match. With the pressure on, Austin’s 5-iron from 193 yards on the 18th just cleared a ridge and settled 5 feet for the hole.
After Sabbatini made his birdie from 8 feet, Austin closed out the match with his third straight birdie.
That kept the score tight going into a pivotal round today, with five matches in the morning and five in the afternoon.
It was embarrassing for Austin, sure, but it brightened an otherwise dreary day of clouds and International blue numbers on the board. The Americans went home with broad smiles, and Austin was laughing with them.
You might call it a ripple effect.
“His effects were far reaching,” Verplank said.
Even the International team joined in.
“Hey, Woody,” Singh said to him as they passed each other in the interview room. “The Russian judge gave you an 8.”
Moments later, captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player huddled in a conference room to announce their foursomes pairings for this morning. Nicklaus had the first pick for the second game — Mickelson and Austin.
“I’m going with Phil Mickelson and Jacques Cousteau,” Nicklaus said.
All but forgotten by the plunge was another day of superb play from Austin, a 43-year-old former bank teller who has never played in a team event and is relishing every minute. He delivered the key putts in a halve yesterday, and he was spectacular even soaking wet on a chilly afternoon, making eight birdies when his team needed them all.
It was the birdie he was trying to make that brought Austin so much attention.
The tees were moved up on the 14th hole so that it played 293 yards, and Austin pulled his tee shot just into the hazard. Sabbatini was on the green, David Toms already was in the water, and Austin figured he had no choice but to try to get somewhere near the green for a shot at birdie.
“I knew deep down I probably couldn’t pull the shot off,” Austin said. “I was doing OK until I stepped on the rock. And once I stepped on the rock, I lost my balance.”
He was falling backward, then turned his body and went for the belly flop.
“I don’t think I look any worse than I always do,” Austin said.
But on a more serious note, Austin was never more proud of himself for the way he responded. Theirs was the final match. Toms and Austin had talked about the importance of salvaging something, and Austin delivered.
“I’ve never putted that good under those circumstances. But let’s face it,” he said. “I’ve never been in those circumstances before. I hope today proved that I’m never going to give up until it’s over.”
The International team could say the same.
It was under stiff pressure starting the day five points behind, knowing that another American rout could put them in a deep hole.
Appleby and Singh, who were 0-1-1 against Woods and Furyk in 2005, came through in a huge way. It began on the opening hole when Singh knocked in a birdie from the bunker, and they never let up.
“It was their ‘A’ team and they’ve beaten us before,” Appleby said. “We know what Tiger can do. If Jim was off his game, Tiger could beat us by himself.”
The other matches were close, but the International team never trailed on the back nine except for the Stricker-Verplank victory.